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When we were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Christopher Banks’ life changes over night when shortly after his father’s disappearance his mother goes missing, too. In early twentieth century Shanghai, the boy is orphaned and without relatives, so he is sent to England, the home country he has never known, to live with an aunt. From a curious boy obsessed with detective games, he grows into a young man passionate to make a name for himself as an investigator with the dream of ultimately solving the mystery of his parents’ disappearance. Through his diary entries, we watch Christopher grow up. After his days in Oxford he struggles to establish himself as the master detective he longs to be. Hoping to make the right connections, he attends many a high-society event where he meets future benefactors and the fascinating Sarah. A few years later, our protagonist has established himself after solving several high-profile cases and as their ways cross again, Sarah appears to be increasingly interested in him. He lives a comfortable and exciting life and finds a new sense of fulfilment after adopting Jennifer, an orphaned girl who he identifies with deeply. And yet, Christopher is plagued by a restlessness. The case of his parent’s disappearance never leaves his mind until finally, at the height of the Sino-Japanese war, he decides to return to Shanghai to try and find them.

In a story that unfolds over a period of several decades, we slowly realise that all is not as it seems. Little inconsistencies that appear innocuous at first, cast a shadow of doubt over Christopher’s report. We realise, that he strains to portrait himself as a serious and knowledgeable man but repeatedly find him acting in an almost childish way. Slight criticisms that might be brought against him are taken as grave offenses and then swiftly wiped away. It becomes increasingly apparent, that the detective is still suffering from the trauma of his childhood and that his memory might not be as reliable as he wants to believe until, finally, we do not know whom to believe at all.

I was surprised to find that I struggled with my first Ishiguro novel. The premise of the unreliable narrator intrigued me but when I started reading the topic of the unreliability of memory and the distortions caused by trauma just were slightly too obvious for my taste. I kept wondering, whether there was another, smarter layer to this story that I was not perceptive enough to see. Ishiguro’s prose is confident and strong, but I struggled to get into it. The story-telling however shows the Nobel laureate’s strength. His narration is controlled yet imaginative and the world he builds feels vibrant and alive. The distorted and disorienting scene in war-torn downtown Shanghai was the highpoint both of the story itself and my reading experience. The fast, paranoid, clammy chaos of it created the confusing effect I had anticipated from the beginning. But just when I though all’s well that ends well (in regards to my reading experience, certainly not the story) and that I was going to be rewarded for sticking with it, the final revelations completely threw me off. The final resolution was excessively and unnecessarily violent for my taste and is the main reason why I would be very hesitant to recommend this novel – which I know is loved by many.

First published 2000 by Faber and Faber

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