When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans

by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Overview

From the Booker Prize-winning, bestselling author of Remains of the Day comes this stunning work of soaring imagination.

Born in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, Banks was orphaned at the age of nine after the separate disappearances of his parents. Now, more than twenty years later, he is a celebrated figure in London society; yet the investigative expertise that has garnered him fame has done little to illuminate the circumstances of his parents' alleged kidnappings. Banks travels to the seething, labyrinthine city of his memory in hopes of solving the mystery of his own, painful past, only to find that war is ravaging Shanghai beyond recognition-and that his own recollections are proving as difficult to trust as the people around him.

Masterful, suspenseful and psychologically acute, When We Were Orphans offers a profound meditation on the shifting quality of memory, and the possibility of avenging one’s past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780571203840
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 03/01/1901

About the Author

Kazuo Ishiguro is the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work has been translated into more than 40 languages. Both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go have sold more than 1 million copies, and both were adapted into highly acclaimed films. Ishiguro's other work includes The Buried Giant, Nocturnes, A Pale View of the Hills, and An Artist of the Floating World.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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. I remember it now as the most wonderful of summers. After years of being surrounded by fellows, both at school and at Cambridge, I took great pleasure in my own company. I enjoyed the London parks, the quiet of the Reading Room at the British Museum; I indulged entire afternoons strolling the streets of Kensington, outlining to myself plans for my future, pausing once in a while to admire how here in England, even in the midst of such a great city, creepers and ivy are to be found clinging to the fronts of fine houses.

It was on one such leisurely walk that I encountered quite by chance an old schoolfriend, James Osbourne, and discovering him to be a neighbour, suggested he call on me when he was next passing. Although at that point I had yet to receive a single visitor in my rooms, I issued my invitation with confidence, having chosen the premises with some care. The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; the drawing room, which received plenty of sun throughout the first half of the day, contained an ageing sofa as well as two snug armchairs, an antique sideboard and an oak bookcase filled with crumbling encyclopaedias—all of which I was convinced would win the approval of any visitor. Moreover, almost immediately upon taking the rooms, I had walked over to Knightsbridge and acquired there a Queen Anne tea service, several packets of fineteas, and a large tin of biscuits. So when Osbourne did happen along one morning a few days later, I was able to serve out the refreshments with an assurance that never once permitted him to suppose he was my first guest.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, Osbourne moved restlessly around my drawing room, complimenting me on the premises, examining this and that, looking regularly out of the windows to exclaim at whatever was going on below. Eventually he flopped down into the sofa, and we were able to exchange news—our own and that of old schoolfriends. I remember we spent a little time discussing the activities of the workers' unions, before embarking on a long and enjoyable debate on German philosophy, which enabled us to display to one another the intellectual prowess we each had gained at our respective universities. Then Osbourne rose and began his pacing again, pronouncing as he did so upon his various plans for the future.

"I've a mind to go into publishing, you know. Newspapers, magazines, that sort of thing. In fact, I fancy writing a column myself. About politics, social issues. That is, as I say, if I decide not to go into politics myself. I say, Banks, do you really have no idea what you want to do? Look, it's all out there for us"—he indicated the window—"Surely you have some plans."

"I suppose so," I said, smiling. "I have one or two things in mind. I'll let you know in good time."

"What have you got up your sleeve? Come on, out with it! I'll get it out of you yet!"

But I revealed nothing to him, and before long got him arguing again about philosophy or poetry or some such thing. Then around noon, Osbourne suddenly remembered a lunch appointment in Piccadilly and began to gather up his belongings. It was as he was leaving, he turned at the door, saying:

"Look, old chap, I meant to say to you. I'm going along tonight to a bash. It's in honour of Leonard Evershott. The tycoon, you know. An uncle of mine's giving it. Rather short notice, but I wondered if you'd care to come along. I'm quite serious. I'd been meaning to pop over to you long ago, just never got round to it. It'll be at the Charingworth."

When I did not reply immediately, he took a step towards me and said:

"I thought of you because I was remembering. I was remembering how you always used to quiz me about my being 'well connected.' Oh, come on! Don't pretend you've forgotten! You used to interrogate me mercilessly. 'Well connected? Just what does that mean, well connected?' Well, I thought, here's a chance for old Banks to see 'well connected' for himself." Then he shook his head, as though at a memory, saying: "My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school."

I believe it was at this point I finally assented to his suggestion for the evening—an evening which, as I shall explain, was to prove far more significant than I could then have imagined—and showed him out without betraying in any part the resentment I was feeling at these last words of his.

My annoyance only grew once I had sat down again. I had, as it happened, guessed immediately what Osbourne had been referring to. The fact was, throughout school, I had heard it said repeatedly of Osbourne that he was "well connected." It was a phrase that came up unfailingly when people talked of him, and I believe I too used it about him whenever it seemed called for. It was indeed a concept that fascinated me, this notion that he was in some mysterious way connected to various of the higher walks of life, even though he looked and behaved no differently from the rest of us. However, I cannot imagine I "mercilessly interrogated" him as he had claimed. It is true the subject was something I thought about a lot when I was fourteen or fifteen, but Osbourne and I had not been especially close at school and, as far as I remember, I only once brought it up with him personally.
It was on a foggy autumn morning, and the two of us had been sitting on a low wall outside a country inn. My guess is that we would have been in the Fifth by then. We had been appointed as markers for a cross-country run, and were waiting for the runners to emerge from the fog across a nearby field so that we could point them in the correct direction down a muddy lane. We were not expecting the runners for some time yet, and so had been idly chatting. It was on this occasion, I am sure, that I asked Osbourne about his "well connectedness." Osbourne, who for all his exuberance, had a modest nature, tried to change the subject. But I persisted until he said eventually:

"Oh, do knock it off, Banks. It's all just nonsense, there's nothing to analyse. One simply knows people. One has parents, uncles, family friends. I don't know what there is to be so puzzled about." Then quickly realising what he had said, he had turned and touched my arm. "Dreadfully sorry, old fellow. That was awfully tactless of me."

This faux pas seemed to cause Osbourne much more anguish than it had me. Indeed, it is not impossible it had remained on his conscience for all those years, so that in asking me to accompany him to the Charingworth Club that evening, he was in some way trying to make amends. In any case, as I say, I had not been at all upset that foggy morning by his admittedly careless remark. In fact, it had become a matter of some irritation to me that my schoolfriends, for all their readiness to fall into banter concerning virtually any other of one's misfortunes, would observe a great solemnness at the first mention of my parents' absence. Actually, odd as it may sound, my lack of parents—indeed, of any close kin in England except my aunt in Shropshire—had by then long ceased to be of any great inconvenience to me. As I would often point out to my companions, at a boarding school like ours, we had all learned to get on without parents, and my position was not as unique as all that. Nevertheless, now I look back on it, it seems probable that at least some of my fascination with Osbourne's "well connectedness" had to do with what I then perceived to be my complete lack of connection with the world beyond St. Dunstan's. That I would, when the time came, forge such connections for myself and make my way, I had no doubts. But it is possible I believed I would learn from Osbourne something crucial, something of the way such things worked.

But when I said before that Osbourne's words as he left my flat had somewhat offended me, I was not referring to his raising the matter of my "interrogating" him all those years before. Rather, what I had taken exception to was his casual judgement that I had been "such an odd bird at school."

In fact, it has always been a puzzle to me that Osbourne should have said such a thing of me that morning, since my own memory is that I blended perfectly into English school life. During even my earliest weeks at St. Dunstan's, I do not believe I did anything to cause myself embarrassment. On my very first day, for instance, I recall observing a mannerism many of the boys adopted when standing and talking—of tucking the right hand into a waistcoat pocket and moving the left shoulder up and down in a kind of shrug to underline certain of their remarks. I distinctly remember reproducing this mannerism on that same first day with sufficient expertise that not a single of my fellows noticed anything odd or thought to make fun.

In much the same bold spirit, I rapidly absorbed the other gestures, turns of phrase and exclamations popular among my peers, as well as grasping the deeper mores and etiquettes prevailing in my new surroundings. I certainly realised quickly enough that it would not do for me to indulge openly—as I had been doing routinely in Shanghai—my ideas on crime and its detection. So much so that even when during my third year there was a series of thefts, and the entire school was enjoying playing at detectives, I carefully refrained from joining in in all but a nominal way. And it was, no doubt, some remnant of this same policy that caused me to reveal so little of my "plans" to Osbourne that morning he called on me.

However, for all my caution, I can bring to mind at least two instances from school that suggest I must, at least occasionally, have lowered my guard sufficiently to give some idea of my ambitions. I was unable even at the time to account for these incidents, and am no closer to doing so today.

The earlier of these occurred on the occasion of my fourteenth birthday. My two good friends of that time, Robert Thornton-Browne and Russell Stanton, had taken me to a tea-shop in the village and we had been enjoying ourselves over scones and cream cakes. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and all the other tables were occupied. This meant that every few minutes more rain-soaked villagers would come in, look around, and throw disapproving looks in our direction as though we should immediately vacate our table for them. But Mrs. Jordan, the proprietress, had always been welcoming towards us, and on that afternoon of my birthday, we felt we had every right to be occupying the choice table beside the bay window with its view of the village square. I do not recall much of what we talked about that day; but once we had eaten our fill, my two companions exchanged looks, then Thornton-Browne reached down into his satchel and presented to me a gift-wrapped package.

As I set about opening it, I quickly realised the package had been wrapped in numerous sheets, and my friends would laugh noisily each time I removed one layer, only to be confronted by another. All the signs, then, were that I would find some joke item at the end of it all. What I did eventually uncover was a weathered leather case, and when I undid the tiny catch and raised the lid, a magnifying glass.

I have it here now before me. Its appearance has changed little over the years; it was on that afternoon already well travelled. I remember noting this, along with the fact that it was very powerful, surprisingly weighty, and that the ivory handle was chipped all down one side. I did not notice until later—one needs a second magnifying glass to read the engraving—that it was manufactured in Zurich in 1887.

My first reaction to this gift was one of huge excitement. I snatched it up, brushing aside the bundles of wrapping covering the table surface—I suspect in my enthusiasm I caused a few sheets to flutter to the floor—and began immediately to test it on some specks of butter smeared on the tablecloth. I became so absorbed that I was only vaguely aware of my friends laughing in that exaggerated way that signifies a joke at one's expense. By the time I looked up, finally self-conscious, they had both fallen into an uncertain silence. It was then that Thornton-Browne gave a half-hearted snigger, saying:

"We thought since you're going to be a detective, you'd be needing one of these."
At this point, I quickly recovered my wits and made a show of pretending the whole thing had been an amusing jest. But by then, I fancy, my two friends were themselves confused about their intentions, and for the remainder of our time at the tea-shop, we never quite regained our former comfortable mood.

As I say, I have the magnifying glass here now in front of me. I used it when investigating the Mannering case; I used it again, most recently, during the Trevor Richardson affair. A magnifying glass may not be quite the crucial piece of equipment of popular myth, but it remains a useful tool for the gathering of certain sorts of evidence, and I fancy I will, for some time yet, carry about with me my birthday gift from Robert Thornton-Browne and Russell Stanton. Gazing at it now, this thought occurs to me: if my companions' intention was indeed to tease me, well then, the joke is now very much on them. But sadly, I have no way now of ascertaining what they had in mind, nor indeed how, for all my precautions, they had ever gleaned my secret ambition. Stanton, who had lied about his age in order to volunteer, was killed in the third battle of Ypres. Thornton-Browne, I heard, died of tuberculosis two years ago. In any case, both boys left St. Dunstan's in the fifth year and I had long since lost touch with them by the time I heard of their deaths. I still remember, though, how disappointed I was when Thornton-Browne left the school; he had been the one real friend I had made since arriving in England, and I missed him much throughout the latter part of my career at St. Dunstan's.

The second of these two instances that comes to mind occurred a few years later—in the Lower Sixth—but my recollection of it is not as detailed. In fact, I cannot remember at all what came before and after this particular moment. What I have is a memory of walking into a classroom—Room 15 in the Old Priory—where the sun was pouring through the narrow cloister windows in shafts, revealing the dust hanging in the air. The master had yet to arrive, but I must have come in slightly late, for I remember finding my classmates already sitting about in clusters on the desk-tops, benches and window ledges. I was about to join one such group of five or six boys, when their faces all turned to me and I saw immediately that they had been discussing me. Then, before I could say anything, one of the group, Roger Brenthurst, pointed towards me and remarked:

"But surely he's rather too short to be a Sherlock."

A few of them laughed, not particularly unkindly, and that, as far as I recall, was all there was to it. I never heard any further talk concerning my aspirations to be a "Sherlock," but for some time afterwards I had a niggling concern that my secret had got out and become a topic for discussion behind my back.


From the eBook edition.

Reading Group Guide

1. The function of memory is already a major component of the narrative in the opening pages of the book: Christopher is writing in 1930 about something that happened in 1923, and within that memory are the memories of even earlier events. And throughout the book, what Christopher does and does not recollect, is of great concern for him. How has Ishiguro used the vagaries of Christopher's memory to shape the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?

2. What role does Sarah Hemmings play in this early part of the novel as it relates to Christopher? What is behind her urgent need to meet Sir Cecil? What is it about Sarah that moves Christopher to tell her about his past when he had told no one else in all the years he'd been in England? Why is he "surprised and slightly alarmed" [p. 72] to have opened up to her?

3. Before Christopher returns to Shanghai, the narrative hints at what we don't yet know, and at the complexity of what we will learn in the course of the novel. For instance, Christopher, speaking about his uncle Philip, says, "It is perfectly possible that at that stage [before the disappearance of Christopher's father] he wished nothing but good for me, that he had no more inkling than I did of the course of things to come" [p. 85]. What is Ishiguro's intention in using anticipatory passages such as this one? How does this narrative tool affect your reading of the novel?

4. There are hints of things to come for Christopher as an adult in his childhood detective games with Akira [p. 115], and in his staunch belief, just after his parents' disappearances, that detectives will find them [p. 27]. Whereelse do you see the man in the child? And conversely, the child in the man? Do these "hints" illuminate or confuse the narrative? How?

5. Christopher's return to Shanghai [pp. 165-67] is filled with unfamiliarity: the strange milling crowd at the Palace Hotel, the way his sight-lines are constantly being blocked, the custom of shoving. Why does Ishiguro shift the narrative here into a kind of subtle unreality where something is slightly off-kilter wherever Christopher goes? Is it a reflection of Christopher's disorientation or something else? Why is he surprised to find himself feeling disoriented in a place he hasn't been for some twenty years?

6. What do the people of the International Settlement expect of Christopher ("Mr. Banks, do you have any idea at all how relieved we all feel now that you're finally with us?" [p. 171])? What is their expectation based on? For his part, does Christopher imagine that everyone equates his case--the disappearance of his parents--with staving off an escalation of war? Does he come to believe it as well, or does he imagine that the people who express relief at his arrival are as concerned as he is with finding his parents? Or is it something else altogether? Is it clear what is at the root of this particular confusion?

7. What is Sir Cecil's role in the book? What is the significance of his candor, skepticism, world-weariness, and, finally, his physical and moral collapse in Shanghai?

8. When Sarah proposes to Christopher that he leave Shanghai with her, he acquiesces virtually without emotion [p. 230]. How do you explain his decision and the way it's made? What might he be answering to in himself when he agrees to go with her? And what causes him to change his mind at the last moment?

9. Christopher encounters many kinds of mazes in Shanghai: the streets he must navigate as a boy when his uncle Philip deserts him in the middle of the city; the crowds he negotiates at the Palace Hotel upon his return to the city; the rooms at the Lucky Chance house; the rooms at his old house; the streets he's driven through before he arrives at "the warren"; and, of course, the warren itself. What is the significance and function of the mazes in this novel?

10. The detective game that Christopher played with Akira just after Christopher's father disappears [pp. 118-120] presages, almost exactly, what happens in the warren. What is the implication of this?

11. Is the man whom Christopher recognizes as Akira [p. 268] really Akira? If not, why does Christopher need to believe he is?

12. "I'm beginning to see now, many things aren't as I supposed, " Christopher says [p. 299] after he is safely out of the warren. Why now? What other revelations are contained for Christopher in his failure to find his parents? He goes on to say: "[childhood] is hardly a foreign land to me. In many ways, it's where I've continued to live all my life." Has "living" in his childhood prevented Christopher from perceiving the circumstances of his own adult life with the same clarity he brings to his examinations of others' lives? What triggers the beginning of his "journey" toward that clarity?

13. What is Christopher's reaction when he learns that his mother finally cared nothing about the campaign against opium, and only about his well being? Does he have mixed feelings about it? Why? How do Christopher's own actions after he learns the truth about his parents, reflect his mother's shift from larger to more personal concerns years earlier?

14. How is Christopher's reaction to the news that Wang Ku was his benefactor characteristic or uncharacteristic of his behavior throughout the rest of the novel?

15. When Christopher finds his mother in Hong Kong and she fails to recognize him, he asks her if she can forgive her son for not finding her [p. 331]? Why do you think he feels he has never found her even though he has? What else might he think he needs to ask forgiveness for?

16. On page 49, we learn that Sarah Hemmings is also an orphan. Are Christopher and Sarah the "we" the title refers to? Or is there a more abstract significance to the title? What do you make of the suggestion in the title that it is possible that being an orphan is not a permanent condition?

17. On the last page of the novel, referring to himself and Sarah, Christopher writes: "But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm." How do these sentiments reflect back on the book? Do they clarify, or otherwise alter the understanding of it?

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When We Were Orphans 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the story of Christopher's search for his parents promised so much, the cold pomposity of his character, combined with his self absorbtion and general lack of concern with anyone else's feelings made this a tough read. For a book to really soar one has to have at least some sympathy with it's protagonists, but in this book it was hard from the outset.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story is about a generally dislikeable fellow. He has a high opinion of himself, but very little esteem. He spends the majority of his life trying to prove his worth not only to himself but to others around him. As this story unravels, the last few pages give a glimmer of light that he has finally discovered a bit a meaning in living.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want a conventional story, this is not the author, nor the book for you. But if you love a challenging read, one that you will think about and savor long after you are finished, you will not be disappointed. I wish he would write a book every year.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is difficult not to think of Ismail Merchant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and James Ivory when reading this book. Merchant Ivory¿s films are consistently exceptional in there own right, while never dismembering the book you may have so enjoyed. But to think this is anything less than a brilliant piece of writing would be unfair, and to suggest this is a ready-made screenplay is absurd. Mr. Ishiguro is a magnificent writer. He need not be shrill to make a point, nor profane to shock or maintain the reader¿s attention. The cadence of this novel is leisurely, and being such it produces widely disparate understandings amongst readers. I enjoyed parts of all the 6 reviews I read, as I was not the only one who wasn¿t precisely sure when I had found solid ground when reading this work. I believe if read a second time the truth would be very apparent. That a second effort may be required is yet another testament to the writer, and in no way insulting to the reader. The protagonist suffers painful events as a child. There is no reasonable way they could not cause terrible damage, and then leave their scars. Mr. Ishiguro explores this gently, just as the victim may not overtly manifest outrageous behavior. His careful treatment of Christopher is not vague or deficient, it reads as being appropriate, and exposes the results of his traumas with the time and care they need. ¿Threads¿ are often used to describe the storyline of a work. In many books I would suggest they are more like mooring ropes. In this book threads is being generous, for the first person narrative is not written deceptively, but can be construed differently by a group of readers. I think this is great. It¿s quite rare to read a contemporary work that does not hammer away at a tired theme, disclose the end when the prologue has barely been passed, or just insult the reader by presuming we are encephalitic illiterates. (Not trying to showboat, just loved the sound of those two words) It took what was probably the most jarring event to finally convince me I wasn¿t lost. And the event was much closer to the end than the start. What is real, and what is not will be decided by how carefully you read, and how cautious you are with the limitations of first person narrative. It is not a method that allows for much independent verification. However, I never felt frustrated, as the writer is so good and the read so enjoyable. I wish I could say more, but I would ruin what the book will be for you. I can say you will enjoy the read immensely.
sweetiegherkin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Christopher Banks, a renown London detective (ala Sherlock Holmes), recalls his childhood in the Shanghai international settlement, where both of his parents went missing, and decides that solving the mystery of his parents' disappearances is to be his greatest case. I read this book before (in July 2006; there must be something about the month of July that I choose to read this book then) and enjoyed it a lot, despite criticism that it is Ishiguro's weakest work, with the author himself saying it is not his best. While I do see the flaws in the work and how it is not as technically well-bound as his other works, I nevertheless appreciated the beauty of this work. In fact, I went on to read two other of Ishiguro's titles and was inclined to read this one again because I like his work so much and because this story in particular stuck with me over the years. Ishiguro seems to be interested very much in all his works with memories (including how they can elude or deceive us at times) and how the past continues to haunt and affect us (isn't this so true?). This is a great theme (and one that can be quite universal), and I like how he can incorporate it into different genres (i.e., mystery is this case, science fiction in his Never Let Me Go). When We Were Orphans is a compelling and thoughtful work, and I heartily recommend it. And, for the audiophile, John Lee is a spectacular narrator with perfect pacing and spot-on accents.
londonlady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
'When We Were Orphans' recalls the works of the period in which it is set, the 1930s, in its style of narration and the types of characters portrayed.Most strongly for me were the echoes of Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier' - Christopher Banks is the unreliable narrator, leaving the reader in doubt of the truth of his story. The signposts of structure and conformity of London - the role of the detective, the strict rules of contemporary society - give way to the chaos of Shanghai. In London Banks' identity is constructed (or designed to be constructed) around his history and identity - Banks longs for the confirmation of his place in society that his parents would offer. Once he reaches China, however, the people and places that truely mark his past and his identity are unreliable and undignifiend - from the altered remains of his former home to his encounter with his best friend from childhood.Identity, nationality, and truth are all played with in this novel to stunning effect. The formality of 1930s high society eventually overpowered by the reality of individuality.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting case of an unreliable narrator, but in the end the plot resembles other famous plots too much to make it a memorable book.It was interesting to read, just a bit disappointing at the end.
Ardwick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Understated story of a man apparently orphaned as a child in Shanghai with his parents thought to be abducted by war lords. He is adopted by his rich English aunt and becomes a detective determined to find out what happened to his parents. He returns to Shanghai as World War II and at great personal risk finds out that the truth isn't what he expected.
gbill on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What I liked:- The writing; it's like velvet. It's the first book I've read of Ishiguro's and I was impressed.- Character of Sarah Hemmings; the pages with her sizzle.- The villian; I won't give away the ending, but the bad guy is truly evil and the final confrontation is memorable.- Setting in Shanghai; the description of imperialism, corruption, and the opium trade were of personal interest.- The elements of nostalgia, the fogginess of memory, the 'good and evil' of man, lack or loss of parental love in childhood (for several), and the transience of life ... it all adds up to create a unique feeling. What I disliked:- There are aspects of the plot which are unbelievable; the delay in starting his investigation back in Shanghai, the odd expectation and certainty of success, an encounter that you'd expect to be one in a million, etc. Perhaps it's meant to all be symbolic of chasing childhood memories and the elusiveness of recovering the 'good days' and parental love, but I think this is a weak point.- The personal mission to rescue parents and 'clean up Shanghai' seems disproportinately played up as 'root of evil' (head of serpent) relative to the crisis in the world at large. Likely meant as a microcosm and the need to fight evil on small scale to defeat it on a large scale, but it came across as hyperbole to me.I would recommend the book and debated 4 stars. I think Ishiguro reached just a little too far but I give him credit for the artistry.Favorite quotes:"The evil ones are much too cunning for your ordinary decent citizen. They'll run rings around him, corrupt him, turn him against his fellows. I see it, I see it all the time now and it will grow worse. That's why we'll need to rely more than ever on the likes of you, my young friend. The few on our side every bit as clever as they are.""I think it would be no bad thing if boys like you all grew up with a bit of everything. We might all treat each other a good deal better then. Be less of these wars for one thing. Oh yes. Perhaps one day, all these conflicts will end, and it won't be because of great statesmen or churches or organizations like this one. It'll be because people have changed. They'll be like you, Puffin. More a mixture. So why not become a mongrel? It's healthy.""So identical were their pitiful whispers, the way their screams gave way to desperate entreaties, then returned to screams, that the notion came to me this was what each of us would go through on our way to death - that these terrible noises were as universal as the crying of newborn babies.""'Those were splendid days', I said. 'We didn't know it then, of course, just how splendid they were. Children never do, I suppose.'""But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm."
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Christopher Banks spent a happy in childhood in Shanghai at the beginning of the 20th century as the son of privileged British ex patriates living in a large house supplied by the opium importer for which his father worked. He spent his days playing make-believe games with his best friend, the Japanese boy who lived next door. But then first his father, then his mother disappeared¿kidnapped by ruthless Chinese criminals. An orphan, Christopher is sent to England where he grows up determined to become a famous detective like Sherlock Holmes and solve the mystery of his parents¿ disappearance.Gradually, as Christopher narrates his story¿alternating between 1930s London where he lives as an adult, having fulfilled his ambition of becoming a famous detective, and his recollections of his childhood in Shanghai¿the reader becomes aware that the narrator¿s view of reality is skewed. Indeed, it seems that Christopher is living in a fantasy world where he believes his parents are still alive, even decades later, and that his return to Shanghai to find them will somehow avert the disastrous war brewing between the Chinese and Japanese. By the time he gets back to China, we feel like we can trust nothing that Christopher says, and that is the genius of this novel.Christopher comes to an abrupt reckoning with the truth following a harrowing sequence in which he wends his way through a bombed-out Chinese slum, avoiding the battles going on in the streets around him while trying to locate the very house where he believes his parents are still being held. When he finally learns the truth, he returns to England defeated but still quite self-deluded.While on the surface, When We Were Orphans is a crime novel written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, in actuality it is a complex psychological study of a character stranded at a traumatic point in his childhood, unable to move beyond his fantasies.
technodiabla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked this book pretty well in the beginning, but it just got stupid. Christopher Banks is a totally annoying and frustrating narrator, and unfortunately you can't escape him. It starts off as an interesting personal mystery but the character loses all sense of reality and takes you with him. This premise could work for me, but Banks was just so ridiculously self-centered and deluded that I could not take him seriously or have any empathy whatsoever. The writing was good, his usual style.
sistersticks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book presented me with a dilemma. It is beautifully written. It evokes 1920's wealthy London and 1930's Shanghai beautifully. It casts light on the colonial life in 1930's Shanghai and the politics of the period in a thought provoking but effortless way. At first I was enthralled and interested in the main character, but by the end of the book I was outraged by his self absorption, his lack of grip on reality, and by his absolute lack of empathy for other characters. I thought he was mad. Perhaps that's the point. However, this book is definitely worth reading, particularly if you enjoyed Remains of the Day.
labeet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A really weird book. The author constantly keeping one in a sort of dull suspense over what's actually going on, since we're rarely informed about was has happened or what's going to happen. We're just told what's happening. But it's still rather intriguing...
CasualFriday on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have a big literary crush on Kazuo Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go were two of my favorite books of the last five years. When We Were Orphans is a different animal. It's much more densely plotted and the tone is much less controlled. The book is about Christopher Banks, an Englishman reared in Shanghai whose parents disappeared mysteriously when he was six years old. He grows up to be a renowned (?) detective and returns to Shanghai in hopes of solving the case - and by doing so, resolving the Sino-Japanese war and saving civilization.Ishiguro is playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, and Banks comes across as pretty much delusional. He acknowledges through the book that he doesn't trust his own memory of events. But what's odd is that so many of the other characters seem to share in his delusion, and seem to believe that he is the man who will single-handedly save China. I think Ishiguro is attempting to portray a man's interior confusion through these snapshots of the outside world seemingly buying in - as a paranoid man might see external confirmations of his world view whether they are there or not. In any case, aspects of the book are confusing and certainly food for thought. The latter part of the book is almost hallucinatory, and incidentally reminds me of the climax of The Wicker Man, my favorite horror film.
Fluffyblue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was my second attempt to read this book. I think the first time must have been about six years ago, and I gave up before I got even a quarter of the way in. It just wasn't 'its time' then. I'm glad I picked it up again. I have never read an Ishiguro book before, and wasn't too sure what to expect, never even seen "The Remains of the Day" so had no concept of his writing. I found it to be very well set and the language he used was very much 'of the time'. There was a lot of detail and I was able to visualise his descriptions easily - something I'm not always able to do when reading a book!The story was quite slow, but I did not find that to be too much of a chore (perhaps that's why I gave up last time?), it was probably what I would call steady, and didn't really build up to any tension until the last quarter of the book. The ending was enjoyable (if that's the right term), and although it probably wasn't as satisfactory as some may have wanted it to be, I felt it was the right ending and followed the general tone of the book. I wasn't sure whether to give this a 3 or a 4, so plumped for 3.5, but it probably errs more on a 4.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As always, Ishiguro's narrative is complex and interesting, his writing beautiful, and his narrator fascinating. The book picks you up from the beginning, and it follows through. My only qualm with the book (and the reason it doesn't get five stars from me) is that there is a portion involving war where, honestly, many of the actions of characters (and the narrative itself) just seem a bit unbelievable and appear to put Ishiguro out of his element. Still this isn't a central part of the novel, and a small problem with a book that is otherwise overwhelmingly engaging, believable, and worthwhile. You'll fall in love with his characters, and worry over them even as at other times you may be infuriated. The book is beautiful and worth reading. On a somewhat separate note, I do wish Roddy Doyle had read this book before writing Paddy Clarke--there are some effects here which Ishiguro accomplishes admirably and apparently effortlessly in his rendering of children, that I found to fall flat in Doyle's work. When I read the first portion of this, my immediate reaction was to think yes, this is how you do that. I strongly recommend this book for any writer or reader--it is a wonderful wonderful work that lives up to its author's reputation for excellence and individuality.
mausergem on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Christopher Banks, aged 10, arrives in England from Shanghai after the mysterious disappearance of his parents one after the other. He grows up to become a famous detective in England. He returns to Shanghai to solve the greatest mystery of his life, his parent's disappearance. Here he finds love, the second world war and some bitter, bitter answers.When we were Orphans is the author's later works which was shortlisted for the Booker's prize. Ishiguro narrates his story in a series of anecdotes. He also creates suspense while telling his anecdotes. This style is very endearing. A good read overall.
ladycato on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved the setting of the 1920s and 1930s in England and Shanghai. The tone of the narrator is set well, but I wanted more insight into how he works, not just his idealized memories. He's a detective, but his major cases are never described, and then his case in Shanghai is severely bungled. I hoped for more happiness in his life and more of an escape for me, and instead the reality is very cruel.
siafl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It amuses me to be able to say that this book is a failed detective story, and that is because the narrator, himself a private investigator, hasn't achieved his goal the way he would have desired, and it isn't that I am chanting in agreement with some reviews - including the author's own assessment that this book hasn't been his strongest - that this book is only average. I, first of all, don't read enough mystery novels so I cannot judge from that perspective; to me, every novel is a mystery novel, or else there would be no meaning in reading it. Second, I have fully enjoyed reading this book, and is baffled by why people would find Ishiguro's writing here less than what he's reputed to be capable of. This is a complex story, albeit each thread feels like it could have been more developed. As well, I am in general not a fan or coincidental encounters, so I haven't much liked the part about Akira.I don't wish to take anything away from Ishiguro's beautiful prose, which I admire without hesitation. And I find the author's intentions with the book coming through without trouble, so I don't think it has been a case of a book turning out somewhat differently than what an author has set out to do, and I can't seem to understand what the dissatisfaction with the book is. Is it in a league with Ishiguro's other more noted works, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go? Perhaps not, but only ever slightly so.
emily_morine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm on a major Ishiguro bender. Since I wrote a few weeks ago about his newest novel, Never Let Me Go, my enthusiasm has only grown; in fact, I just finished When We Were Orphans, which was every bit as intriguing as the other three of his I've read (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World).As always, the act of narration takes front and center position in When We Were Orphans - I think Ishiguro has got to be the master of using the unreliable (or at least highly subjective) narrator to great effect. In The Remains of the Day there are some scenes that truly take the breath away with their ability to juggle multiple subjectivities while still telling a story that, while multi-layered, is riveting on its most basic level as well. So, for example, there is a scene in which Miss Kenton, the semi-impetuous housekeeper, comes to "bother" Stevens in his study while he's reading a novel, and there is a moment of acute sexual tension between them, except that Stevens (the first-person voice) both refuses to acknowledge such things as "sexuality" to his readers, and may not even understand himself the attraction he felt. In addition, the entire episode is told in flashback, with the past Stevens holding a different set of attitudes and opinions toward the events than the present Stevens. There is also a plotline in the present day which is influencing the moods of Stevens the narrator, and past embarrassment about the novel in question, which adds a certain huffiness to the demeanor of the man, both past and present. Through all of these prismatic narrative challenges, Ishiguro manages to tell a story that is elegant and affecting, as well as communicating, through the reticent and muddled eyes of Stevens, a clear portrait of Miss Kenton's motivations and emotions. No mean feat, obviously.In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's trademark unreliable narrator is used to excellent advantage in the way that the novel plays off of the detective genre, creating an amazing experience for the reader by turning the whole idea of a whodunit on its head. Usually, the detective in any given mystery novel is the ultimate word in veracity: if he or she says it, you can believe it. Extreme examples of this phenomenon are many of Sherlock Holmes' cases, in which Holmes professes to know the solution to the case before he and Watson even start investigating - he's more just trying to tie up a few loose ends, and then he'll reveal everything to us.But Christopher Banks, the ostensibly great detective in Ishiguro's novel, is wildly unreliable, constantly overlooking the obvious, insisting on the ludicrous, and attempting to paint a picture of himself that's at odds with the memories of seemingly every person he runs across in the course of the novel. Over and over, although he insists on his own social acumen, he meets old acquaintances and classmates who remember him as "a miserable loner" or "an odd duck" - claims to which he takes startled exception ("You must have me confused with someone else, old chap. I was always one for mucking in."). Likewise, when he remembers or encounters anyone who expresses compassion about his orphanhood (his parents are kidnapped when he is a child), he reacts with brusque annoyance.These character quirks are rendered mysterious rather than absurd or amusing, by the fact that there are also people who do seem to take Banks seriously - he's not simply a deluded maniac believing himself to be a great detective. There are instances that seem to corroborate almost positively certain claims that Banks makes at one time or another, and other passages where he does seem genuinely perceptive and honest, balancing out his more outlandish moments. The interplay between these elements leaves the reader floating along on a superbly-crafted bed of quicksand, always unsure quite what to believe, which events Banks has reported accurately, and why or in what ways he has been inaccurate. Banks' own frustr
SallyApollon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When We Were OrphansBy Kazuo IshiguroSally ApollonOverall Score: 7.5 out of 10STYLE: I found this to be rather convoluted; he would forward and backtrack all the time, seeming to meander off at tangents. I did find myself referring back to the Part Titles/dates to orient myself. Having said this, it did all come to fruition and I think the style was evidence of the narrators¿ thought processes. There was a sense of wandering through places trying to make sense of it all. I enjoyed the proper English language, which placed you squarely in the correct time-reference for the events.TIME: I do find this time in history (preceding WWII), to be incredibly fascinating, I am currently enjoying ¿Downton Abbey¿ for many of the same reasons. For so many countries the descent into this long, chaotic conflict was foreshadowed for some years and has had repercussions and echoes into our own lives today.CHARACTER: Christopher Bates¿a very thorough character development. He was someone who it seems never recovered from his abandonment; although he was fiercely defensive that he was perfectly fine, his whole raison d¿etre was the ongoing search for his parents. It makes sense therefore, that he is a solitary figure, that does not allow himself to get close to others. His chosen profession is the ideal ¿front¿ for his burning passion to locate his mother (his father is entirely secondary¿almost incidental). But let me be clear, it is evident from his narration that he does not see himself this way. His character has a snooty aloofness, which to others can only manifest as snobbery¿a beautiful example of which being the event in Shanghai at Mr. Keswick¿s, when everyone goes into the conservatory for dessert and entertainment. The entertainment¿¿was entirely lost on me¿ and he observes the others to be laughing ¿with almost indecent abandon¿. This becomes the event at which he realizes Sarah is miserable and becomes the impetus for her plan to run away with him. The ease with which he adopts her plan and the contempt he subsequently shows for those around him are evidence of how inauthentic he really is.All other characters; Sarah, Jennifer, the parents, Uncle Phillip, the various people in Shanghai and Akira are only thinly drawn sketches compared to Christopher¿which is itself an illustration of how completely self-absorbed he was. The way in which he quickly forgets about others and seems to use them as a means to an end is evidence of this. The Japanese soldier (Akira?) was very quickly forgotten and I¿m pretty sure was never Akira at all. Sarah vanished into the mists of time when he thought he had a good lead. Jennifer seemed to be a way to resolve his own abandonment, but not until old age did he really seem to appreciate her for who she really was¿she attempted suicide, did she not? And he continues to keep even her at a distance.PLOT: As this book built tension, I kept expecting to be disappointed¿but somehow the author managed to resolve the plot in a pleasing and almost plausible way. The horrific Japanese Chinese conflict that Christopher stumbles through even manage to play second fiddle to his search. I found this preposterous. Throughout Christopher¿s search I anticipated that he was largely deluded and was surprised to find he met with any degree of success. There were even times when I expected that it would be revealed he had delusional mental illness¿as if the whole book was a hoax.I found the words of the Japanese Colonel to be quite profound:`I am not talking merely of China. The entire globe, Mr. Banks, the entire globe will before long be engaged in war. What you just saw in Chapei, it is but a small speck of dust compared to what the world soon must witness! ¿. You really have no idea, sir¿He evidently was realizing the perspective that Christopher lacked, but these words were like water off a duck¿s back to him, it really made no difference.The discovery of Yellow Snake and the whole, humbling tru
riofriotex on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thought this was an awful book. I suspect it was chosen by one of my book clubs based on Ishiguro¿s reputation for "The Remains of the Day" (which I have not read, and, after this awful book, have no intention to read). However, this book had a slow, improbable, frustrating, nearly non-existent plot in an absurd and illogical setting with an unbelievable, naïve, unlikeable, uninteresting, conceited, self-involved, stupefying protagonist. The other characters were remote, weak, stereotyped, wooden, and underdeveloped. Aspects of the storyline were implausible bordering on preposterous. The only reason I even finished it was due to the book club. Not recommended.
piefuchs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up based upon my love of The Remains of the Day. Mistake. Not a bad book, but mediocre when compared to the author's earlier effort.
bhowell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I did not find this to be the page turner that Never Let me Go was but it still is a marvelous book. It creates a picture of British society in pre WWII Shanghai in the "International Settlement". It is not a flattering portrait and it is a shocking reminder of the evil of the British exploitation of the opium trade. China was never a British colony so did not even have the so called benefits of security and law and order. The opium trade brought death and destruction to the ordinary Chinese but the British never gave it a moments thought. They sipped champagne in 1937on the balconies of their sumptuous hotels while watching the Japanese warships fire into the Chinese areas of Shanghai. It touched them not. When we Were Orphans is however a book about the human spirit, the loss of innocence, and precious relationships and friendships.. If I have a criticism, it would be that Christopher Banks seemed to maintain this innocence and ignorance a bit longer than seems believable. Perhaps however there was no limit to the narrowminded ignorance of the British. As much as Christopher rails against it , he is part of it in his assumption that his quest for his lost parents is more important than the terrible events around him.Anyone who is interested in the history of this period and the opium wars should of course read "Empire of the Sun" by J. G. Ballard. Mr Ballard grew up in Shanghai during the 30's and was actually witness to these turbulent times. Yes, there is the Spielberg movie but I highly recommend the book.Following my usual practice, I wrote my review and then read the other reviews. I saw that other readers had the same discomfort about the narrator and main character, Christopher Banks. Could he really have been that naive, given that he was supposedly educated, clever, and a brilliant detective? I think the key is, as at least one reviewer stated, that everything about Shanghai is viewed through his childhood innocence. A grown man should recognize the unliklihood of his parents still living in the same house for 30 years, but the child "Puffin" does not. His failure to say anything to help his Japanese childhood friend (when he could so easily have done so) and the failure to even acknowledge that is puzzling. After all, he is supposed to be clever. Unless of course he is acting as a child where his search for his parents recognizes no other needs. I could accept that more easily if his behavour in London as an adult did not suffer from some of the same problems. This detachment characterizes all his relationships. There is loss but never grief. There is also a distinct lack of self awareness, not only in his relationships with others, but in his view of himself. His school mates thought of him as a troubled loner. He thought he was totally normal and happy. The author alerts us to that fairly early in the book. Christopher is not a reliable narrator of much of anything but we know that or should have known that. Is he still believable enough to present a genuine intellectual challenge? Maybe.
marysargent on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hm. Curious. I felt unsatisfied by this one, or am I missing something?. This protagonist was so self-deluded that we were never allowed to see reality in spite of him. E.g., the way he abandoned his Japanese friend, without acknowledging it. Am I supposed to be so evolved that I don't need the author's acknowledgment?