Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (Amazon affiliate link) tells the story of a British detective in the master writer’s hallmark style.
All of Ishiguro’s work that I am familiar with–The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant (my review), and When We Were Orphans–shares similar storytelling methods and a common motif of how memory leads and misleads us through our lives.
When We Were Orphans is stylistically closer to The Remains of the Day, and if you had told me that Christopher Banks were the protagonist of The Remains of the Day I would need to seek out biological trivia to prove you wrong. This is the sort of character that Ishiguro seems to have the strongest affinity for, however. If people complained that The Buried Giant was muddled because of the constant shift between focal characters, they will be happy to know that all the mystery and confusion that comes from When We Were Orphans is a result of Christopher’s own confused memory.
Unlike the two other novels I’ve read by Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans focuses more heavily on action through its sole protagonist’s eyes, though it is written in the form of letters recounting events.
The Buried Giant certainly has some action, but it’s told only through a few characters’ eyes (three out of several, and two of these only barely).
What Banks encounters in When We Were Orphans is more personal and builds up tension better, at least in my opinion. This external tension is paired with internal tension, so while Ishiguro’s other work is primarily reliant on psychological suuspense one also gets the feeling that Banks’ life could very well be in danger at many points.
Whether this is an improvement or not, I am actually unsure. I will say that When We Were Orphans reminds me a lot of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich in terms of the protagonist’s development. Where the other novels by Ishiguro often dwell on themes of self-deception, this one goes more heavily into it, to the point that an astute reader should quickly see where Banks has deceived himself.
Set in the period immediately preceding the Second World War, it should not be particularly surprising that this theme would play a key role in the novel, as the question of what to do in light of growing totalitarianism and the crisis this spread through the free world is one that forms a central element of the conflict. Banks’ self-deception is matched by an equally good effort by almost every other character in the novel.
However, it is worth noting that Ishiguro does not let this descend into triviality.
Banks is a man of singular conviction, a master detective who also at many times has things escape him because he is not prepared to see them. He is someone who struggles with his memory and putting his perceptions into order, but like the elites of Britain in his day, who he hobnobs with, he has a certain amount of naivete. Despite claiming and earnestly believing that there is a struggle between good and evil, he parrots the notion that he is one of the good guys doing good work while holding on to deep cynicism in other ways; he doesn’t have the hero’s spirit, but he has the hero’s role.
The delusional excesses of the period are played out over and over, and much of the novel’s appeal lies in how it handles the role of an evidently exceptional individual trapped in a declining culture.
The childhood period of Christopher’s life in Shanghai, where the novel spends much of its time recounting his relationship with his mother, raises many of the questions that the book is going to continue to develop over its course.
And that is something that I would cite as a great strength of When We Were Orphans. It raises a large number of questions, like the masters would, but unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy he doesn’t feel compelled to provide us with a clear answer and spoil half the point of the exercise. This is in no way a criticism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy–they were guides trying to lead society away from perdition–but Ishiguro asks questions about the nature of the hell that the great novelists of the 1800s were trying to steer us away from.
When We Were Orphans is a darker novel, thematically speaking, than Ishiguro’s other work. The Remains of the Day deals with personal tragedy, The Buried Giant deals with historical injustice and the depravity of the world, and When We Were Orphans deals with both.
As with his other novels, Ishiguro expects the reader to keep up with him, but the reward for that is a depth and authenticity to the characters and a mystery that the readers can try to solve. When We Were Orphans delivers intrigue and depth, and there’s a great story here. Just be forewarned that it takes a long time to get to where it’s going, and if your main focus is on figuring out “what happens” you’ll get to the conclusion before Ishiguro finishes asking the questions he poses.