Kazuo Ishiguro never fails in making you scared out of your mind about the reliability of your memory! He’s like a modern-day Descartes! When We Were Orphans on the surface is a historical detective novel but between the pages deals heavily with memory, nostalgia and belonging.
Ishiguro’s novel jumps around in time. From the ’30s and ’50s in England to the early 20th century in Shanghai. The novel, besides the final chapter, is written in retrospective of the protagonist Christoper Banks life.
His parents moved him to Shanghai from England where he was young. He lived in an international region and his best friend was Japanese. Ishiguro provides a detailed insight into these two young boys life. How they feel at home in a country that is not their birthplace — or so they thought they did.
When his mother and father disappear, Christopher is sent to England to live with his Aunt. From there he goes to a private school and works his way up. We see young Christoper play at being his father’s detective to growing up to be one of the best in the country.
There are so many themes to unpack in this novel and I can see why it is so critically acclaimed. There’s the discussion of morality and corruption in the law. There’s violence and conflict, nationality and politics. And youth and loneliness. But as I said before the most prominent is that of memory of nostalgia.
Christopher constantly reminds the reader that what he is saying might not be one hundred perfect accurate. When recounting his childhood, Christopher cannot be certain if he retelling what he saw with his own eyes or what he has pieced together from his mother’s accounts. The whole thing is quite dizzying and despite Christopher’s warning about the integrity of his narrative, you find yourself trusting him even more because of the tragic nature of his life.
Christopher’s mother was a particularly striking character, perhaps because she was a figment of her son’s memory. She was a strong member of those against the use of opium in Shanghai — for a woman during this period she was incredibly strong and independent. But again is this a true representation of her? When Christopher finally gets to the bottom of her disappearance she becomes even more of a tragic character. The final chapters are truly heartbreaking and upsetting and put into perspective Christopher’s mental state.
This is certainly not Ishiguro’s most talked-about novel, nonetheless When We Were Orphans is my favourite by him yet. There’s history, mystery, morality and philosophy. This book has got everything perfectly slotted into its pages and deserves to be talked about more!