Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the world’s most respected novelists, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 based on a body of work of only seven novels and one collection of short fiction.
I say “only” because many Nobel Prize winners have a much larger oeuvre. But Ishiguro’s work has a distinct and unique voice. He’s unlike any writer I’ve come across. His novels feature unreliable, first-person narrators who are often deluded, wistful, confused, and suffering under the fog of memory. The melancholic tone reads almost like an elegy.
I’ve read and loved many of his novels, among them his debut, A Pale View of the Hills; the famous butler book, The Remains of the Day, which put him on the map; his dystopian horror story, Never Let Me Go; and his most recent novel, Klara and the Sun.
Recently I went back and picked up When We Were Orphans, published in 2000. Although this novel had all the trademarks of Ishiguro’s mesmerizing voice and confounding narrators, this novel isn’t his best, and even Ishiguro has admitted that.
The story is narrated by an Englishman, Christopher Banks, who lived until he was ten years old in the Shanghai International Settlement in China in the early 1900s. But then his father, a businessman tied into the opium trade, and his mother disappear within a few weeks of each other. Christopher is shipped off to England to be raised by a relative.
He grows up to become a famous detective, solving all sorts of crimes in London, and becoming sought after in the highest social circles despite his awkwardness. He decides to return to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his missing parents. Talk about delusional: he thinks they’re still alive and being held captive. He also seems to think that solving the mystery will have much broader, heroic implications, such as calming the current hostilities between China and Japan.
But in this novel, Ishiguro’s trademark tone and voice don’t mesh well with the gritty and gory battle situations, and the narrator is so unreliable and self-unaware that it’s difficult to accept his telling of the story.
Still, I was compelled to keep reading, absorbed and mesmerized by Ishiguro’s writing. When We Were Orphans is probably only for confirmed fans, but if you’re just getting started with this incredible author, I’d say pick up Never Let Me Go or The Remains of the Day.