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When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans (2000)

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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There's a part of this tale that reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes knock-off. But the famous detective is barely mentioned, really only when the young want-to-be detective, Christopher Banks, is teased by his school friends. The book also has a Sherlock-like tone, yet it's a much more personal rendering of the main character's life after young Christopher Bank's parents go missing from his early Shanghai home. He is shipped off to England, yet vows to return and find answers to the mystery of his parents' disappearance. He eventually does go back to Shanghai after becoming the famous consulting detective he'd set his sights on. What makes this book so compelling is that there's little emphasis on the crimes Christopher Banks solves and so much more of the detective's own life's story. All the supporting characters are well-developed. As for Detective Christopher Banks, I found him so lifelike and endearing that I wouldn't mind knowing him somewhere other than on the written page.

Favorite Quote:
"But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm." ( )
  PaperDollLady | Aug 17, 2015 |
Implausible as a detective story--which the book isn't--but also implausible as a character study. Very disappointed. ( )
  brocade | Aug 12, 2015 |
(16) This is the third Ishiguro novel I have read. I loved 'Never Let Me Go.' I expected this to be somewhat better than it was. It started out with so much promise - lovely writing, a literary mystery, beautiful period detail, setting, prose. I really enjoyed it up until he returned to Shanghai. British Christopher Banks is orphaned when his parents disappear while they are living in the International Settlement in Shanghai in the 1930s working for an import company while opium was king. Years later he is a Sherlock Holmes type private detective type and he returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery that has haunted him all his life - what happened to his parents?

It really starts out great with little hazy clues from his boyhood. His adventures with his Japanese friend, Akira are endearing and seem so important -- but then -- things just fizzle. Christopher seems almost an unreal character; an unreliable narrator or does the whole story just become surreal when he gets to Shanghai as an adult? Hard to say and certainly events strain credulity and become ridiculous such as when he is racing along behind enemy lines in the middle of a firefight with his magnifying glass looking for his vanished parents. What the . . .? I found this vibe rather disappointing. It was as if Ishiguro got tired of a cozy historical mystery and decided to foray into; I don't know; almost magical realism. But then, that feel was shrugged off and the novel settled back into trying to be serious and touching again. But it was too late for me. By the time the mystery was revealed, I didn't care as much anymore.

Overall, a good read but disappointing if you look at the reviews and accolades. I learned a lot about Shanghai - I never knew the history of the International Settlement at all or that it was taken over after Pearl Harbor. And really Ishiguro is a fine prose writer, capable of lovely turns of phrase and descriptive powers. This was just a bit strange for me. ( )
1 vote jhowell | Apr 28, 2015 |
This is my 5th book by Ishiguro, but [The Remains of the Day] will always be my favourite.

Quite early on in the story it becomes clear that this is not our classical detective story, but a story about personal growth and a too late recognized grand illusion. Similar to Stevens in [The Remains of the Day], Christopher, our main protagonist, realizes at the end that he sacrificed his happiness for the wrong reasons.

“All I know is that I've wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I'd get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don't want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow's sky. That's what I want now, and I think it's what you should want too. But it will be too late soon. We'll become too set to change. If we don't take our chance now, another may never come for either of us.”

Christopher is born in Shanghai and when he looses his parents to an apparent kidnapping, he has to go back to England. There he lives with his aunt , in London and attends boarding schools. He is the odd child, the outsider and someone who considers himself to be a survival artist. Deeply troubled, a child who lives in his own fantasy world and believes that he can hide his true being from everyone around him. He wants to become a great detective to unravel the riddle of his childhood trauma. This discrepancy of self-perception and what other think of Christopher, runs like a red thread through the story. At least his dreams of becoming a great detective become true.

The whole story appears to be like a walk through Christopher's memory landscapes in which incredible high hedges are blocking the way, and constantly narrow the path into nothingness. The strongest passages in the book are the flashbacks into Christopher's childhood. Although, they are collections of individual episodes of his childhood, they manage to knit themselves into a fascinating story.

The second part of the book, where Christopher goes back to Shanghai to find his parents initially didn't quite work for me and I it just felt like a brake in the story line. Everyone in Shanghai appeared to know him, and their greatest concern was to assist him in solving the crime committed almost ? 20 years earlier. He was treated like some kind of saviour and at times, this strange status was just incomprehensible to me.

“The colonel nodded. "Our childhood seems so far away now. All this" - he gestured out of the vehicle - "so much suffering. One of our Japanese poets, a court lady many years ago, wrote how sad this was. She wrote of how our childhood becomes like a foreign land once we have grown."
"Well, Colonel, it's hardly a foreign land to me. In many ways, it's where I've continued to live all my life. It's only now I've started to make my journey from it.”

Well, and here I realized that the exaggerated Shanghai part was just another way to show us how the perceptions and memories of Christopher and his surroundings diverged, and how his life-lie finally starts to get holes.

Definitely a good read and one I can recommend. ( )
1 vote drachenbraut23 | Jan 5, 2015 |
As others have said, this isn't considered Kazuo Ishiguro's best novel and I am glad it wasn't the first I read of his.
That said I found it an engaging enough read that didn't move me in the way his other novels had but I was gripped as the novel unfolded and things came to light.
The narrator is a man called Christopher Banks and we first meet him as a child in Shanghai. I liked the idea of the unreliable narrator; at times he does say that maybe he hasn't remembered this quite correctly or just as it was and I found this reassuring as I get cross with narrators who seem to remember things word for word. That said, we do get a lot of detail from his early childhood, as this is crucial to the story. We also meet some other characters and the childhood naivety and trust in some of these is apparent.
For me, the novel was working well until the section in 1937 in Shanghai and the disorientating search through the destroyed buildings on the front line between the Japanese and Chinese; this section had a dream-like quality that I expected him to work through and I am sure the atmosphere here was all deliberate in the exploration of memory and in particular memories from our childhood and how our mind processes these as we get older and how reliable these are.
Isiguro created a character that is complex; he shows warmth and care at different times and inaction and selfishness at others. ( )
  Tifi | May 11, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 83 (next | show all)
When We Were Orphans may well be Ishiguro's most capacious book so far, in part because it stitches together his almost microscopic examination of self-delusion, as it plays out in lost men, with a much larger, often metaphorical look at complacency on a national scale.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, Pico Iyer (pay site) (Oct 5, 2000)
Das neue Buch ist eine Überraschung. Denn es kommt so ganz anders daher, es tut so, als werde hier einmal Handfestes geboten, ein Kriminalfall! Ein Kind verliert seine Eltern. Ein schreckliches Familiendrama. Eine historische Erzählung, die sich im China der Opiumkriege entfaltet, Kolonialismus, Bandenkrieg, es birgt, natürlich, auch die Geschichte einer vergeblichen Liebe, und es gehört zum Abenteuerlichen dieser Lektüre, dass wir alle paar Seiten der Illusion erliegen, nun aber endlich zu erahnen, worauf wir uns hier einzulassen haben. Ahnungen, die uns mit dem Wenden einer Seite weggeschlagen werden, was die Gedanken nicht unangenehm verwirrt, so wie wenn die Achterbahn abrupt die Richtung wechselt und es uns herumschleudert und wir die Gravidität der Gehirnmasse kribbelnd spüren. Kein Wunder, es ist die Lebensgeschichte eines Verrückten.
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To Lorna and Naomi
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It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt's wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington.
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Privatdetektiven Christopher Banks har opklaret talrige sager i det londonske society. Men der er stadig en sag han ikke har kunnet løse. Under sin opvækst i Shanghai forsvandt hans forældre sporløst. Nu, i slutningen af 1930erne på kanten af 2. verdenskrig, indser Banks at han må tilbage til Østen

The novel is about a British man named Christopher Banks who used to live in the Shanghai of colonial China in the early 1900s, but when his father, an opium businessman, and his mother disappear within an interval of a few weeks, Christopher is sent away to live with his aunt in Britain. Christopher vows to become a detective in order to solve the case of his parents' disappearance, and he achieves this goal through ruthless determination. His fame as a private investigator soon spreads, and in the late 1930s he returns to China to solve the most important case of his life. The impression is given that if he solves this case, a world catastrophe will be averted but it is not apparent how. As Christopher pursues his investigation, the boundaries between fact and fantasy begin to evaporate.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375724400, Paperback)

When 9-year-old Christopher Banks's father--a British businessman involved in the opium trade--disappears from the family home in Shanghai, the boy and his friend Akira play at being detectives: "Until in the end, after the chases, fist-fights and gun-battles around the warren-like alleys of the Chinese districts, whatever our variations and elaborations, our narratives would always conclude with a magnificent ceremony held in Jessfield Park, a ceremony that would see us, one after another, step out onto a specially erected stage ... to greet the vast cheering crowds."

But Christopher's mother also disappears, and he is sent to live in England, where he grows up in the years between the world wars to become, he claims, a famous detective. His family's fate continues to haunt him, however, and he sifts through his memories to try to make sense of his loss. Finally, in the late 1930s, he returns to Shanghai to solve the most important case of his life. But as Christopher pursues his investigation, the boundaries between fact and fantasy begin to evaporate. Is the Japanese soldier he meets really Akira? Are his parents really being held in a house in the Chinese district? And who is Mr. Grayson, the British official who seems to be planning an important celebration? "My first question, sir, before anything else, is if you're happy with the choice of Jessfield Park for the ceremony? We will, you see, require substantial space."

In When We Were Orphans Kazuo Ishiguro uses the conventions of crime fiction to create a moving portrait of a troubled mind, and of a man who cannot escape the long shadows cast by childhood trauma. Sherlock Holmes needed only fragments--a muddy shoe, cigarette ash on a sleeve--to make his deductions, but all Christopher has are fading recollections of long-ago events, and for him the truth is much harder to grasp. Ishiguro writes in the first person, but from the beginning there are cracks in Christopher's carefully restrained prose, suggestions that his version of the world may not be the most reliable. Faced with such a narrator, the reader is forced to become a detective too, chasing crumbs of truth through the labyrinth of Christopher's memory.

Ishiguro has never been one for verbal pyrotechnics, but the unruffled surface of this haunting novel only adds to its emotional power. When We Were Orphans is an extraordinary feat of sustained, perfectly controlled imagination, and in Christopher Banks the author has created one of his most memorable characters. --Simon Leake

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:35 -0400)

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Christopher Banks, an English boy who was orphaned after his parents disappeared in Shanghai under suspicious circumstances, returns to Shanghai twenty years later in the hopes of learning what really happened to his parents.

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