When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro [in aOnline]
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work, When We Were Orphans, is a remarkable novel of love, loss, and potential redemption. In the same understated, quiet style that worked so well in his two previous novels, the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled, Ishiguro weaves a multi-layered tale of intertwined intrigue and complicated mystery.
Christopher Banks, the 9-year-old only son of ex-patriot British parents, lives a near idyllic life in the International Settlement of cosmopolitan Shanghai. His parents dote on him, his Amah takes good care of him, he shares mischievous adventures with his best friend Akira who lives next door, and his favorite “Uncle” Philip entertains him often. Then one day, without warning, Christopher’s father disappears. Not long after, his mother, an outspoken anti-opium activist, too, vanishes. Suddenly alone, Christopher is sent to live with an aunt in England.
As a young man, he moves to London, eventually making quite a name for himself as a detective. He finds himself in the unlikely company of another orphan, Sarah Hemmings, a socialite-wannabe, through various points of his life. He takes in another orphan, a young girl named Jennifer, and raises her as his own.
The life Christopher builds for himself is comfortable: he has friends, he has influence, he even has a family of sorts. However, he realizes he will never find peace until he has resolved the case of his missing parents. He returns to 1937-Shanghai in the midst of Nationalist vs. Communist unrest, just on the verge of Japanese takeover. And once there, he becomes convinced that his parents have been held ‘lo these many years in a house across the street from a famous blind man.
Like Ishiguro’s previous protagonists, Christopher is a subtle, controlled, often unreachable character. Nor is he a reliable narrator … which makes for quite an interactive reading experience. Not only is there the mystery that Christopher is trying to solve involving his parents, there is also the challenge as readers to do a little detective work as well, to sort through what is Christopher’s flawed memory and imagination, and what might have actually happened … or, didn’t happen.
While we may never know the answers, the process itself is engaging, entertaining, challenging and, in the end, haunting. After 336, pages, the unanswered questions only ensure that the Christopher Banks story will continue long after the reader has closed the book.