Readers who made a merit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day would well up such high anticipation of When We Were Orphans and only to find the book did not achieve the same caliber of the precedent. While I have no doubt that When We Were Orphans is a fine piece of literature, I feel an onus to do its justice in spite of all the (negative) bashing on the book. True, the two novels do not belong to the same league, but the one in question is worth the the and effort.
However jumbled or confusing the book might have appeared (to many people), the plot is very simple. Christopher Banks, the protagonist and narrator, was born and raised in Shanghai, China, in the 1920s when Europeans swarmed into the city for trades and business. Banks’ mother was at the time involved in an underground organization that thwarted the imports of opium in the country, a practice that was rife and lucrative. As his parents mysteriously disappeared, one by one, Banks was taken back to England to be under the care of his aunt. Banks eventually became a renowned London detective and returned to Shanghai in hope of resolving the mystery of his parents’ disappearance.
Far as the unreliable narrator tactics goes, as readers, we are not obliged to believe everything that Banks says (so why the pet peeves?). Ishiguro does not seem to make clear which of the leads readers should hold on to and deem as the truth. The truth is, our ability of recollections is not always as accurate as we think (or we want). The inevitable consequence of such shortcoming only produces in mind mishmash or a collage of memory fragments. Imagine all these combined with the naivete of a 9-year-old, how reliable can the narration be? Even though detective Banks had become increasingly preoccupied with his memories (more or less a preoccupation encouraged by the discovery of his childhood memories), what really happened to his parents remained a blur. From time to time Banks “was struck anew by how hazy so much of the memories have grown” (70) as he had trouble recalling something that happened 2 or 3 years ago. So while we might have to guess what the truth is, Ishiguro does subtly hint not to trust everything we read.
Ishiguro’s prose is seamless, elegant and dazzling. He book manifests authenticity of the setting, especially Shanghai, in that given time period, where the so-called elite of Shanghai (made up of Chinese businessmen and politicians in the high echelon of society and foreign entrepreneurs) treated with such contempt the suffering of the average Chinese civilians. The characters are etched, especially the reminiscences of the friendship between Akira and Banks, and the anecdotes when little Banks jocosely ordered his mother to get off the swing at once in fear of breaking it.
A fine piece of literature is never without flaw. The book take quite a sharp turns and rushes to an end that shocks not only the readers but the protagonist as well. I will not give that away to spoil the reading experience but to me honestly it is somewhat annoying (and lame). All I can say is the resolution of the case brings about irreparable damage in Banks’ life and affirms his traumatic childhood. The fun part is being tricked at the end. An intriguing story.
352 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]