When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage, New York, 2001
From my TBR pile. On the short list for the 2000 Booker prize. I am reading along with Wendy’s Literary Novels from my Stack personal challenge when I can. February is Man Booker Prize Month.
An elegant novel about memory, When We Were Orphans is a slow, controlled and engaging mystery.
Christopher Banks, this novel’s first person narrator, is a famous detective in London. Orphaned at a young age, sent from Shanghai to England, his one desire is to become a great detective. Cool, reticent and self-controlled, he attains his goal, all the time remaining distant from those around him. Twenty years later he is determined to return to the Shanghai and solve the case of his parents’ disappearances. When he does return to the far east things are not at all how he remembers them.
Banks holds himself at a distance, from the reader, from friends and from colleagues. He does not allow life’s possibilities to distract him from his goal. He lives at a remove, from his emotions and his personal history. This gives the novel a chill, it feels like a ghost story. In fact it is haunted, by Christopher’s past, his missing parents, the intrigues of early twentieth-century Shanghai.
I found When We Were Orphans difficult in places, maybe because I found it hard to empathize with Christopher Banks. It will not be my favorite Ishiguro novel, but I am continually awed by his style, use of restraint and use of language. He is one of those authors who constantly surprises me and I plan to read all of his work.