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When We Were Orphans [Paperback]

Kazuo Ishiguro
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (128 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 29 2001
British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 1989 Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day, which sold over a million copies in English alone and was the basis of a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Now When We Were Orphans, his extraordinary fifth novel, has been called “his fullest achievement yet” (The New York Times Book Review) and placed him again on the Booker shortlist. A complex, intelligent, subtle and restrained psychological novel built along the lines of a detective story, it confirms Ishiguro as one of the most important writers in English today. London’s Sunday Times said: “You seldom read a novel that so convinces you it is extending the possibilities of fiction.”

The novel takes us to Shanghai in the late 1930s, with English detective Christopher Banks bent on solving the mystery that has plagued him all his life: the disappearance of his parents when he was eight. By his own account, he is now a celebrated gentleman sleuth, the toast of London society. But as we learn, he is also a solitary figure, his career built on an obsession. Believing his parents may still be held captive, he longs to put right as an adult what he was powerless to change as a child, when he played at being Sherlock Holmes — before both his parents vanished and he was sent to England to be raised by an aunt.

Banks’ father was involved in the importation of opium, and solving the mystery means finding that his boyhood was not the innocent, enchanted world he has cherished in memory. The Shanghai he revisits is in the throes of the Sino—Japanese war, an apocalyptic nightmare; he sees the horror of the slums surrounding the international community in “a dreamscape worthy of Borges” (The Independent). “We think that if we can only put something right that went a bit awry, then our lives would be healed and the world would be healed,” says Ishiguro of the illusion under which his hero suffers.

It becomes increasingly clear that Banks is not to be trusted as a narrator. The stiff, elegant voice grows more hysterical, his vision more feverish, as he comes closer to the truth. Like Ryder of The Unconsoled, Ishiguro’s previous novel, Banks is trapped in his boyhood fantasy, and he follows his obsession at the cost of personal happiness. Other characters appear as projections of his fears and desires. All Ishiguro’s novels concern themselves with the past, the consequences of denying it and the unreliability of memory.

It is from Ishiguro’s own family history that the novel takes its setting. Though his family is Japanese, Ishiguro’s father was born in Shanghai’s international community in 1920; his grandfather was sent there to set up a Chinese branch of Toyota, then a textile company. “My father has old pictures of the first Mr. Toyota driving his Rolls-Royce down the Bund.” When the Japanese invaded in 1937, the fighting left the international commune a ghetto, and his family moved back to Nagasaki.

When We Were Orphans raises the bar for the literary mystery. Though more complex than much of Ishiguro’s earlier work, which has led to mixed reactions, it was published internationally (his work has been published in 28 languages) and was a New York Times bestseller.

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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Set in Shanghai on the eve of World War II, Ishiguro's Booker-nominated novel follows the surreal predicament of Christopher Banks, an English expatriate whose overwrought state is perfectly rendered by narrator John Lee. After his parents are mysteriously kidnapped, nine-year-old Christopher is shipped off to England, where he grows up to become the Sherlock Holmes of his timesAa man able to right wrongs, restore order. After 18 years, Banks returns to Shanghai with the bizarre notion that if he can find his parents, he can prevent the world war. Banks's search drags him through the era's Chinese-Japanese war in a masterful sequence where past and present, reality and imagination, good and evil become indistinguishable. Lee seamlessly renders Banks's complex psychology, but he employs an exaggerated nasal voice for the characters of several pompous Brits, and his Chinese and Japanese accents are often off-putting. But listeners probably won't let these small blemishes keep them from Ishiguro's much-acclaimed tale of abandonment, nostalgia and self-delusion. Based on the Knopf hardcover (Forecasts, July 10).
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's all about psychology and memory June 8 2002
Christopher Banks is an unusual detective in Kazuo Ishiguro¡s latest novel, When We Were Orphans. The story is not about Banks¡s investigation of a shrewdly planned murder or a cunning theft; he is attempting to solve the greatest mystery in his life: the disappearance of his parents when he was a boy in early twentieth century Shanghai. Certainly not a conventional adventure story, it nonetheless has the feature of a mystery tale ¡V one can never know the truth, or at least, a portion of the truth, until the last pages.
When the novel opens in 1930, Christopher Banks has become a renowned private detective in London. His first person narration begins innocently enough, with a classically correct, ¡¥realistic¡ fashion:
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.
This opening echoes that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle¡s A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story: ¡§In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London ¡K¡, and both narratives similarly give an impression of rational, orderly narrative to the readers, fitting for a detective novel. Indeed, our principal character Banks has mentioned reading about the ¡§foggy streets of the Conan Doyle mysteries¡. Banks¡s account is not unlike that of Dr. Watson, with a matter-of-fact style, and complete with the most ¡¥correct¡ English attitude.
¡§I¡d like to oblige you, Miss Hemmings. But unfortunately I¡ve already replied to the organisers some days ago.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Slow, overhyped, and unbelievable April 26 2002
By A Customer
I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans. It was well written. The dialogue and descriptions of people and places were excellent. The ending was shocking, surprising, and fast-paced. That being said, I regret that I bought it and would not recommend it to anyone else.
The plot was thin, perhaps because it was stretched over too long a book. Until the last tape the pace was too slow for a mystery. A few leaps backward and forward in time are acceptable but he made so many it became a bit difficult to follow the story line. Worse, he sometimes jumped from "A" to "C" in situations without going through "B," or even referring to it in "C" so we knew how he got to "C." An example of this was his acceptance of, and seeming agreement with, the assumption of the city councilman, his old schoolmate Morgan, and the Chinese family in his old home, that Christopher's parents were not only alive but still being held prisoner in Shanghi. We were not told about anything Christopher had discovered either in London or after arriving in Shanghi that would have justified that assumption.
In fact, we were not told about anything he had discovered in England that would indicate he had reason to believe his parents were still in Shanghi or even still alive. Yet there is an implication that he had discovered something, some lead or information that might make a trip to Shanghi worthwhile.
The great buzz that his arrival in Shanghi created and his VIP treatment was not believable. Even if he were a British detective of Sherlock Holmes' stature there would not be any reason for people living in Shanghi to be so impressed by him or to be so interested in his case---especially since the case was a personal one involving his parents.
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4.0 out of 5 stars It's The Way He Tells 'Em... April 14 2007
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved to Britain at the age of five. He was awarded the OBE in 1995 and the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998. "When We Were Orphans" is his fifth novel, was first published in 2000 and was shortlisted for that year's Booker Prize.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told by Christopher Banks. Born and raised in Shanghai until the age of nine - when, within a few weeks of each other, both his parents disappeared - Banks then moved to England, to be raised by an aunt. Now grown up and based in London, Christopher is based in London and working as a high profile and very successful private detective. His celebrity has eased his way into fashionable London society, though some - such as Sarah Hemmings - are initially a little resistant to his appeal. Fashionable society, however, isn't Christopher's main concen : although it's been many years since his parents disappeared, the case is still (apparently) open and unsolved. Christopher has taken it upon himself to complete the investigation - "When We Were Orphans" sees him not only move forward with the case, but also look back on his childhood memories of Shanghai. Obviously, his parents feature prominently in these memories - but his friendship with a Japanese boy called Akira was also very important to him. As the book goes on, however, it becomes clear - though unfortunately not to Banks himself - just how unreliable his memories are. Ultimately, the investigation leads to his return to Shanghai - where he hopes to close the case. The trouble, of course, is that while his investigation may uncover the truth, the truth may not be quite what he is expecting...
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Betwix and between
If the reader is still looking for a nice coherent plot from an Ishiguro novel, lots of luck. It just isn't going to happen. Read more
Published on July 23 2006 by Ian Gordon Malcomson
2.0 out of 5 stars Uncompelling excersize in frustration
I have read all of Ishiguro's previous novels including the painfully frustrating Unconsoled. The first two-thirds of Orphans raised my hopes that Ishiguro had returned to previous... Read more
Published on June 2 2002 by D. Fay
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece of aberrant reality
A brief look at the available reviews shows that middle opinions are rare. You either have the taste for Ishiguro's works after "The Remains of The Day" or you don't. Read more
Published on May 3 2002 by missir
2.0 out of 5 stars Confusing style
There are several interpretations of this book.
As a mystery this is very disappointing because we are never given enough information to understand why Christopher comes to... Read more
Published on May 1 2002
1.0 out of 5 stars What's Ishiguro up to?
I admit that I have not yet finished the book, and so perhaps should reserve judgement, but I won't. Read more
Published on April 27 2002 by andy barrett
5.0 out of 5 stars I love this book.
I love this book. Will you? It's hard to say. If you are concerned with question of one's responsibility towards global justice, toward those who are close to us, to ourselves, and... Read more
Published on April 25 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars As Good As Remains of the Day
There seems to be quite a few reviewers who prefer Remains of the Day over When We Were Orphans. I don't quite understand this preference since there are obvious parallels between... Read more
Published on April 16 2002
2.0 out of 5 stars quite Boring
I had to plow through this book, which made no real sense after a while. It was soo boring. Full of nonsence information. Read more
Published on April 15 2002 by Eleonora Subak
1.0 out of 5 stars yuck. famous author writes like a high schooler
Oh how I hated this book. Sometimes I give up on a book when it is written poorly or with poor story craftsmanship. Read more
Published on April 12 2002 by Nicholas R. Gibson
2.0 out of 5 stars Absurd...
It left me annoyed with so many unanswered questions:
Why would any sane person think for a minute his parents were still alive, after having disappeared over 30 years... Read more
Published on April 9 2002
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