When We Were Orphans

I’ve only read three Kazuo Ishiguro novels so far, all of which fall under different genres. The first one I read was his 2005 science fiction novel, Never Let Me Go, followed  (many years later) by his Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, which is a Victorian/historical fiction. Recently, I read When We Were Orphans, which is generally categorized as a detective novel.  When We Were Orphans, published in 2000, was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize of the same year.

Set in the 1930s, the protagonist of When We Were Orphans, Christopher Banks, tells the strange and tragic story of how he became an orphan in Shanghai, China.  Christopher grew up in the International Settlement in Shanghai, China in the early 1900s, where his father worked for a British trading company.  When Christopher was 10 years old, his father suddenly disappeared on his way to work.  A few weeks after his father disappeared, Christopher’s mother also suddenly vanished without a trace.  Alone in a foreign country, Christopher was sent back to England to live with his aunt, who was his only surviving relative.

Doing his best to fit in to British society, Christopher goes to boarding school and tries to assimilate with his new life.  After college, Christopher fulfills his dream of becoming a private detective, inspired by stories of Sherlock Holmes he read as a boy and also by his parents’ mysterious circumstances. Owing to back-to-back successes in solving difficult cases, Christopher quickly makes a name for himself among the British upper class society as an excellent detective.  Soon, Christopher turns his attentions to his own mysterious past and the real reason he became a detective:  to find his missing mother and father.

After years of tracking leads and exchanging correspondences with contacts in Shanghai, Christopher finally returns to China to take the final step needed to track down his parents.  While in Shanghai, Christopher realizes that the familiar world he left behind no longer existed and that he had been harboring unrealistic hopes about the fate of his parents.  However, when he finally learns the truth, it is even more bizarre and tragic than he ever imagined.

Though generally billed as a detective novel, I wouldn’t exactly categorize When We Were Orphans under that genre.  Though the protagonist is in fact a private detective, the novel does not focus on any of his many cases.  Even the facts of his parents’ case seemed secondary compared with the psychological, emotional, and cultural aspect of the story and Christopher’s retelling of his past to make sense of everything that happened to him. Set against the backdrop of the imminent second World War, Ishiguro sheds light on arrogant Western centric thoughts and ideals at the time, including racism, discrimination, and colonialization mentality.

Despite its clear cultural and political themes, When We Were Orphans is also about friendship, companionship, and finding love and solace among kindred spirits.  More than a detective story, When We Were Orphans is a coming-of-age story and a story of love among friends, family, and lovers.

Of the three Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I have to say that this is my second favorite.  I liked it a lot more than Never Let Me Go, but I think The Remains of the Day is still his best.  It’s a slow read at times, especially when the narrative jumps back and forth through time, but because of the recurring theme of familial love, especially between a mother and son, this novel touched me deeper than his other novels.  The emotional bond between Christopher and his mother, not to mention a mother’s unimaginable sacrifices, struck a chord in me that left me in tears toward end of the novel.


When We Were Orphans (2000) – Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber and Faber; 313 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  4/5

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