By Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a random pickup for me, and I’m not quite sure what called out to me about it. I’ve never read any other novels by Ishiguro, but I enjoyed (in a sort of depressed way) the movie “Remains of the Day” based on his award-winning novel.
The thing is, I had got the impression that When We Were Orphans was a psychological thriller, based on the unraveling of an unreliable narrator, and it is very much not that. I intended to warn here about the misrepresentation of the publisher’s description, but then I went back and reread it:
In 1930s Shanghai, detective Christopher Banks seeks to solve his parents’ long-ago disappearance — and finds himself trapped in his own past.
While clearly not comprehensive, that is not inaccurate, and it seems I just interpreted it entirely wrong, which is actually embarrassingly on-the-nose for what the book is about. Protagonist Christopher Banks is no more unreliable a narrator than any of us are; instead of a study of one man’s fallibility, it is much more a look at how all of us see our lives through very filtered lenses, and when you have to rely on memories for any sort of objective truth, you are on very shaky ground.
The setting of the international settlement in Shanghai perfectly mirrors the theme of subjective observation as well. I went into this book remarkably blind: about halfway through, I turned to Rebecca and said, “it seems weird that the Japanese occupied Shanghai in the 1930s, but that China was with the allies during WW2 and Japan was with the axis?” A quick google search returned the answer, “whew boy, you have no idea!” Reading about the Westerners in Shanghai shrug off growing global tensions with an assurance that ‘everything would turn out okay’ and the protagonist’s slow awakening that everything was very much not going to turn out okay felt chillingly pertinent today.
I got kind of deep into themes above, but it is also a very engrossing character study and mystery of sorts. We get extensive flashbacks to Banks’ childhood with his parents in Shanghai, but after their disappearance, he is sent to live with an aunt in England, where he is determined to become a famous detective, a la Sherlock Holmes. It becomes clear that in this fiction, such famous detectives do exist, and Banks succeeds over time in becoming one. This formational part of the book is very odd, with his increasingly renowned cases being referenced without any context. It did a good job of establishing the character, while clueing in the reader that this book would not be about tidy solutions to discrete mysteries.
The tension builds gradually as Banks slowly circles around investigating his parents’ disappearance and the international atmosphere gradually shifts from relief over the end of ‘The Great War’ to amorphous dread that things might not be quite so settled after all. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of ramping up the tension, slowly at first and then exponentially faster to a quite frankly dizzying climactic crescendo. I wondered if perhaps some of the final reveals were a bit too melodramatic, but of course that thought led me right back to the novel’s theme of society ignoring extreme violence and corruption as being ‘unrealistic’.