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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's all about psychology and memory
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...
Published on June 8 2002 by Amazon Customer

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Slow, overhyped, and unbelievable
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...
Published on April 26 2002


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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. I fear it¡ll be rather late to inform them of my wish to bring a guest ¡K¡

Such a storytelling manner makes prominent Christopher Banks¡s ¡¥Englishness¡ ¡V a theme which is inevitably linked with the questions of identity and sense of belonging. In this quotation Banks is rejecting an unreasonable request put forward by Sarah Hemmings, an ambitious woman who aspires to join the upper class. In the course of the events they will become familiar and even intimate with each other. Sarah is to become a catalyst in prompting Banks to recall his childhood.
Banks¡s father, who works for a British company involved in the opium business, disappears when he is nine, and foul play is suspected. The young Banks and his Japanese friend, Akira, stage the missing father adventure time and time again in their role-playing games. However, Banks does not reveal too much about his feelings towards the supposed kidnapping of his father. ¡§I do not remember much about the days immediately following my father¡s disappearance¡, so he says. This nicely illustrates a continuous deliberate suppression of emotion in Banks¡s narrative. His true emotions are more subtly hinted at, or sometimes through the discrepancies between Banks¡s words and other characters¡ accounts of certain events. This gives rise to doubts about Banks¡s reliability as a narrator. After all, human memory is fallible, and this factor, coupled with a narrator who may have a tendency to distort his memories, readers are presented with the sometimes difficult but stimulating task of answering the question, what has really happened?
What happens after the disappearance of the father is certain ¡V his mother, a social activist against opium trade, also unaccountably disappears, apparently having been kidnapped. This shatters the boyish Banks¡s hope of living in Shanghai forever and he is sent to England, his ¡¥home¡, to stay with an aunt. His eventual return to Shanghai is at least partially prompted by, again, Sarah, who is to accompany her elderly statesman husband to Shanghai, which leads to the question of whether Banks is in love with her or not.
Flipping back to page one at this moment, one will find that such a ¡¥normal¡ opening has done nothing to prepare unwary readers for the developments in this later part of the story, beginning with Part Four ¡§Cathay Hotel, Shanghai, 20th September 1937¡. Without warning the world of reality, where reason inhabits, collapses. Very often the situation is incredulous or even outright ridiculous. Readers need to confront a different Banks here: his ¡¥logic¡ is so peculiar that there are moments when he seems to be on the verge of insanity. Hardly anyone doubts Banks¡s ability to rescue his parents, who are still believed to be in captivity somewhere in Shanghai, after almost a quarter of a century. Needless to say, Banks does not question the possibility of a satisfying conclusion. When his investigation brings him outside the International Settlement into the war-torn Shanghai, he rescues ¡¥Akira¡, but again, it is dubious whether that Japanese soldier is really Akira. It is near the end of his adventures in Shanghai that reasons seem to resuscitate and an appalling truth is revealed.
This change from ¡¥normal¡ to ¡¥abnormal¡ is exactly the most brilliant point about this novel. The transition is so smooth that one can¡t find the joints, rather like a successful surgery that leaves no scar. This shift should come as a great surprise to readers. Some may at first find this uncomfortable, especially for those who are expecting to see a cool Sherlock Holmes at work, and Ishiguro does raise such expectations in the ¡¥realistic¡ first part. Nevertheless the ¡¥absurd¡ part opens up possibility for readers to think about the way memory works, and readers are presented the psychological burden of a person with a traumatic childhood ¡V in the poignant closing paragraph Banks realizes that it is the fate of orphans to ¡§chas[e] through long years the shadows of vanished parents¡.

Overtly a detective story, When We Were Orphans is above all a psychological journey of a character who courageously confronts his past. With an ingenious plot and memorable characters, this is a novel of memory par excellence.
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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. With the civil war raging around them and the Japanese invaders possibly about to seize Shanghi it was ridiculous to have some of the residents saying that they thought he could help with that situation.
A couple incidents of chance meetings would be believable because they do happen in real life. However, there are more than a lifetime of lucky chance meetings in this book. Finding the old Chinese detective through Morgan's recollection of him as a street bum, finding his childhood Japanese friend as a wounded Japanese soldier who will again act out the rescue of Christopher's parents, and finding the house of the old blind man through the driver Sara provided were all a bit too much. That last one especially because the driver was described as young, maybe even 15 years old, but he remembered the old blind actor from decades before and even knew where he lived. Unbelievable.
Also, the 1916 kidnapping incident he asked the former Chinese detective about (to locate the house where his parents might be held) would have been long before his parents were kidnapped. The probability that they were held in the same house from the time they were kidnapped until Christopher was a grown man with an international reputation (several decades?) was too small to make that whole part of his quest a logical course of action.
Even before he met them, the Chinese family living in his old home had apparently accepted that they would have to give it to because it had been his family home, even though the British company rather than his family owned it. Not believable.
This man who derided the foreigners in China for the way they treated the Chinese (They had no sense of shame about it.) berated and browbeat his Chinese driver and the Chinese lieutenant, both of whom risked their lives to help him find the house he wanted to locate. That destroyed much of my sympathy for him.
The Chinese lieutenant would not be likely to know about or care about Christopher's case and would be extremely unlikely to desert his post to lead Christopher to a house near or even behind the Japanese lines. Similarly, although he was supposed to be dedicated to finding his parents, Christopher quickly decided to run off with to Macau with another man's wife (shame?) but then just as quickly abandoned her at the waterfront (more shame?), along with the possessions he had selected as important enough to fit in the one suitcase she allowed him, so he could run off to find the house where he though his parents were still prisoners after several decades.
Having found the house he had risked his life, and the lives of others, to find, the great detective then spent time examining a wounded dog rather than quickly searching the house for his parents. There certainly are such dysfunctional people in real life but there are an unbelievable number of them in this book.
The warlord, Wang Po, was described as having taken Christopher's mother away "in the dead of the night." But we were previously told that she was kidnapped while Uncle Philip took him to the market during the day. How did Christopher learn about "Diana Roberts," the European woman who was being held in a missionary home for the aged in Hong Kong?
Did anybody edit this book? Did anybody check it for plot continuity and agreement?
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4.0 out of 5 stars It's The Way He Tells 'Em..., April 14 2007
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
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...

While I wouldn't say "When We Were Orphans" is entirely flawless, the flaws are only very few and far between. The details on how Christopher conducted his investigation were a little scant - but, as the book wasn't written as a thriller, that's pretty easy to brush off. The style of writing was also occasionally a little formal - there's a few chaps and fellows here and there, what ho. However, given that the story was being told by a Cambridge graduate in the 1930s...somehow, to me, the language added a touch of authenticity. There were one or two questions left unanswered - particularly in relation to Akira. (I'd have given anything to find out what happened to him after Christopher left Shanghai). Overall, though, I'd absolutely recommend this book - very readable, and one that I just couldn't put down.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Betwix and between, July 23 2006
By 
Ian Gordon Malcomson (Victoria, BC) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
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. Get use to Ishiguro's solitary characters operating within an existential vacuum called time. This literary device leads to all kinds of half-formed, tentative relationships, where the likes of Sara, Akiri, and Christopher never really get to know the essence of the other person in their respective lives. Everybody of importance in this novel has his or her own mission to pursuit and, if something so happens to accidently distil from a brief encounter, it only succeeds in deepening - not solving - the mystery of life as to who we really are. A good read for someone who does not come to fiction with a preconceived notion that life is a nicely packaged array of events and stock personalities.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Uncompelling excersize in frustration, June 2 2002
By 
D. Fay (Laramie, WY United States) - See all my reviews
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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 form and had dispensed with exercises in never ending nightmarish dream states. Unfortunately the last third of Orphans sees a return to this tiring style, and more. I ultimately failed to enjoy this novel for the same reasons that I dislike horror movies where foolish characters enter repeatedly into darkened rooms, or reruns of "I Love Lucy" where every plot is based on a series of easily resolvable misunderstandings that somehow require 30 minutes to remedy. It should be noted that most or all of Ishiguro's novels do have elements of frustration. However, in his first three works, provoking a certain level of impatience in the reader seemed appropriate given the characters and story lines. Not so with Orphans, which exceeded the limits of my patience not to mention my interest. It's really too bad because the man has a golden pen and writes some of the most poignant prose I've ever read. If you liked his earlier work but didn't enjoy Unconsoled, stay away from this one and hope, like me, that Ishiguro writes something worth reading again.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Masterpiece of aberrant reality, May 3 2002
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. It seems that many reviewers somehow missed Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled" (1997) which marked the departure from his impeccably realistic early works to the thrill of unexpected ground loss when reality suddenly starts melting. I greatly admire the author's craft in creating the sense of hugely aberrant reality from a set of completely innocently looking steps.
The story starts slowly and picks up the tempo but very gradually. The narrative matter is very smooth, and each next episode is logically consistent with the previous one. Bothersome seeds are noticeable however here and there, usually in the overt obsessiveness of the main character with certain minor details. It feels as if the reader is forced to look at the world through his eyes and accept certain bents. Next time the reader notices a couple of hundred pages later, the entire world around the main hero is distorted. Even physical space and time are not the same. Effects worthy of science fiction remain completely unexplainable in "The Unconsoled", where a non-trivial highway drive is needed to get to the next room in the same hotel. In "When We Were Orphans" it also sometimes takes a very long time to get to a nearby point but this is because the path goes through an urban battleground, so the laws of nature are formally preserved, yet the eery feeling of irreality lingers on. By the end of the story the stream of events gets truly hectic and you can only guess whether there will be a resolution, which can never be taken for granted with Ishiguro. In comparison with static and observant earlier works, here the author makes the hero go through a bit of action.
Overall "When We Were Orphans" is more mature and less romantic work than "The Unconsoled" (and very different and not directly comaparable to "The Remains of The Day"). It is very intriguing whether Ishiguro will be able to make another step in the same direction (it does not feel that the theme of a confusued man in confusing world is exhausted) or will come up with something altogether different. I would not attach too much importance to the merits of the plot (or lack thereof) or to the message of moral responsibility in judging the novel. It is first and foremost a beautiful construct, made of everyday words and crisp sentences, yet almost as powerful in its abstraction as classical instrumental music.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Confusing style, May 1 2002
By A Customer
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 the conclusions that he does and the plot of the book is so illogical. Why, in the midst of a battle, would a police officer offer to help on such a foolish mission as Banks is on? However, the ending is a perfect who-would'a-thought-that ending.
As study of a clearly disturbed mind that is pursuing a foolish quest in a surreal setting, the book is more acceptable. At that point one could assume that these events don't exactly happen as stated, but are an interpretation of Christopher's mind as his mind replays his solving his parents disappearance as he did in childhood. However, this interpretations doesn't play well with reality of the ending. Did we go from surreal to brutal reality with the turn of a page? Did Christopher recover that quickly?
Another interpretation is that the story is symbolic of England's imperialistic attitude of the world during that era. Christopher is representative of all the negative side of England, making sympathetic comments about the living conditions of the poor, yet being nonplused by the screams of the dying. He treats the Asian natives as poorly as any other European whom he is pretending to criticize.
I did not rate the book highly because there were too many events in the book that just couldn't happen. But if this was a trip into a troubled mind, than the shifting back to a standard format of a mystery didn't go smoothly.
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1.0 out of 5 stars What's Ishiguro up to?, April 27 2002
By 
andy barrett (Albuquerque, NM) - See all my reviews
I admit that I have not yet finished the book, and so perhaps should reserve judgement, but I won't. There are so many absurdities, unexpainable assumuptions made by the characters, both major and minor that I finally concluded that Ishiguro was attempting to write somthing Kafkaesque and, for me, only succedding in making Banks and many of the other charactrers appear deliberately obtuse. Like other reviewers, I am terribly bored by the book, which is admittedly very elegantly written, but I am put of by its abusurdity, which is tiresome and not at all compelling.
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5.0 out of 5 stars As Good As Remains of the Day, April 16 2002
By A Customer
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 the two books. For example:
1. Both books take place before, during and after WWII.
2. Both books have a main character/narrator who is English.
3. Both books have a main character/narrator who is delusional. (Remains's Stevens is delusional of his Master's (Darlington's) dealings with the Nazis. Orphans's Banks is delusional of his parents still being held captive in the same house for 30 years.)
4. Both books have a main character/narrator who is incapable of accepting love from a woman. (Remain's Stevens turns down Miss Kenton's love for him. Orphan's Banks similarly turns down Sarah's love for him. He deserts her at the gramaphone store in Shanghai, doesn't he?)
5. Both books have a supporting character who unintentionally betrays the main character's/narrator's trust. (Remain's Darlington unintentionally betrayed Stevens with his dealings with the Nazis. Orphan's Uncle Philip betrayed Banks with his dealings with the Communists.)
I could go on and on with the similarities, but I'll stop here. My point for bringing all this up is if you the reader can accept the main character being delusional, unaccepting of love from a woman, etc. in one book--why do you have a problem with it in another book?
One reviewer found the Banks character detestable. I would like to ask that reviewer, didn't she find the Stevens character just as detestable? Wasn't he as self-centered, heartless, and shallow as the Banks character? But then everyone is raving about Remains of the Day and finding all kinds of problems with When We Were Orphans.
Now I would like to get to the climax in both books. In Remains of the Day, Stevens finally gets together with Miss Kenton after all these years only to discover that she is unwilling to move back to Darlington Hall. Essentially she rejects him. In When We Were Orphans, Banks finally gets together with his mother after all these years only to discover that she barely remembers him. Essentially she rejects him too. If you the reader had a problem with the climax in Orphans, why didn't you have a problem with the climax in Remains? Aren't they essentially the same?
As you can see from my review, I liked Orphans and Remains equally. Both were well written with interesting characters in a good storyline. Sure there were some things that bothered me about Banks just as there were some things that bothered me about Stevens--but why do we as readers have to like every character that we read? Life is interesting when there are different types of people. Likewise fiction is interesting when there are different types of people--likeable and unlikeable. I can read off a bunch of characters who I have found unlikeable. Read just about any Dostoyevski novel--with the exception of The Idiot--and you will find a main character who is in one way or another detestable. Raskonikov of Crime and Punishment comes to mind.
For those of you who have not read When We Were Orphans, read it with an open mind and you may be surprised to find that you like it. Ishiguro DOES NOT write like your typical bestselling novelist--he is in a league of his own. He challenges your ability and imagination as a reader.
One last note--when Banks came across Akira as a soldier...was that really Akira? You are being challenged.
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1.0 out of 5 stars yuck. famous author writes like a high schooler, April 12 2002
Oh how I hated this book. Sometimes I give up on a book when it is written poorly or with poor story craftsmanship. But in the case of When We Were Orphans, I was so disgusted with the poor quality of the story itself that I willed my self to finish it just so I could come home one day and write a review for Amazon. ... Ishiguro has written like a high schooler who has good technical ability but is not mature enough to actually think his story through. I kept finding myself chuckling at the absurdity of still thinking one's parents were alive and in the same darn house after having been kidnapped 30 years earlier. Huh?? I was also constantly reminded of the Belgian comic hero TinTin and his two-dimensional journies around the exotic regions of the globe....all 11 year old adolescent fantasy and thinness. Maybe the meditations on a child's memories make this the actual point??
A highly respected journalist friend of mine has one primary test for the quality of a story: do all the dots get connected in the end? And in the case of When We Were Orphans, the dots are not only disconnected - they keep disappearing as the story unfolds. Weak characters, simplistic plot devices, lazy story construction, offensive simplicity, etc. etc. I admit my vitriol is in large part motivated by a sense of disappointment after the oft praised Remains of the Day and even An Artist of the Floating World. Sorry Ishiguro....this is terribly weak and I suspect you know it. I'll give you another chance on your next novel though.
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