When We Were Orphans – A Study in "Meh"

It’s London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England’s leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can’t forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher’s greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships – including his love for a lonely socialite – make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I’ve raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I’d be able to disagree with Ishiguro’s own comment, that it’s “not his best book,” ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve – in-your-face exposition – I’m afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher’s voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher’s voice, and I don’t mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I’m watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah – well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I’ll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher’s youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira – a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher’s mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It’s easy to trace the parallel between Christopher’s altruistic career choices and his mother’s campaign against the opium trade.  He’s simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories – foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it’s one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won’t divulge spoilers, but the “solution” is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session…  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he’d given it more time, and I’m puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There’s some morally questionable elements which I’ve alluded to, and if that didn’t bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won’t be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you’re new to Ishiguro’s work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

Horror and History in A Pale View of Hills

Goto island - panoramio
Goto island by Masoud Akbari [CC BY-SA 3.0]

One day, Etsuko’s quiet life is interrupted by a visit from her daughter Niki, who, though being independent and somewhat secretive, has taken time off from her London life to come visit her.  This visit prompts disturbing memories in Etsuko, from the recent suicide of her older daughter Keiko, whom she is still grieving, to her own life back in Nagasaki, Japan.

As a young, pregnant mother and married to her first husband, Jiro, Etsuko’s earlier life had been a witness to sweeping changes in Japanese society, as well as to the physical and cultural presence of the Americans, post WWII.  Most troubling of all, however, is her recollection of her friendship with Sachiko, a confident, middle-aged woman who had moved in to a nearby cottage.  Sachiko had a little daughter named Mariko, who suffered trauma from the bombings of Tokyo and other scenes of the war.  No matter how much Etsuko tried to help Mariko, it seemed her mother had wished to brush it all aside.

Through her memories, Etsuko begins to have recurring dreams about the child, while attempting to find answers that will bring closure to her past acquaintance with her mysterious neighbors.

I was eager to read Kazuo Ishiguro‘s first novel, but I did not realize when I picked it up that it’s a ghost story.  I’m fairly squeamish and tend to shy away from creepy books – the last one I read was Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and that was enough for a long while.  It’s as well I didn’t know, because, while A Pale View of Hills (1982) is absolutely terrifying, it is so excellently written and evocative that I’m glad I read it.

As historical fiction, the book succeeds largely in its portrayal of emotional scars, both in terms of personal life and historic events.  The theme of societal changes present in An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is debuted here: women’s right to vote, legalization of the Japanese Communist Party, parent-child relationships, and American influence are some of the trends which, to the older generation, seemed radical.  The dark legacy of the atomic bomb is present, though in the background.  Overall, the historical elements serve to support the characters, rather than vice-versa.  With this subtle approach, Ishiguro sets up his novel to perhaps age better than other historical fiction, including his better-known novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), in which history may, at times, overwhelm the life of Stevens the butler.

In terms of personal impact, I feel this book is nearly up there with Till We Have Faces.  Ishiguro’s fine balance of frank, polite prose and cryptic omissions make this a story where reading between the lines renders volumes of meaning, even though the book itself is scarcely novel length.  And even though I knew, from reading another review, that there was a big twist coming towards the end, the actual conclusion of the story caught me off-guard.

This is a strange, haunting tale which has the capacity to frighten you, but also to make you want to weep.  The touch of realism that permeates the plot makes it seem to be more than fiction: it’s disturbing, but somehow believable.  I talked more about A Pale View of Hills in my latest podcast episode (spoiler free), as a potential contender for the next generation of classics.  I am sure I shall read it again.