An English boy born in early twentieth century Shanghai, is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances Sent to live in England, he grows up to become a renowned detective and, 20 years later, returns to Shanghai, where the Sino Japanese War is raging.The maze of human memory the ways in which we accommodate and alter it, deceive and deliver ourselves with it is territory that Kazuo Ishiguro has made his own In his previous novels, he has explored this inner world and its manifestations in the lives of his characters with rare inventiveness and subtlety, shrewd humor and insight In When We Were Orphans, his first novel in five years, he returns to this terrain in a brilliantly realized story that illuminates the power of one s past to determine the present.Christopher Banks, an English boy born in early twentieth century Shanghai, is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances Sent to live in England, he grows up to become a renowned detective and,than twenty years later, returns to Shanghai, where the Sino Japanese War is raging, to solve the mystery of the disappearances.The story is straightforward Its telling is remarkable Christopher s voice is controlled, detailed, and detached, its precision unsurprising in someone who has devoted his life to the examination of details and the rigors of objective thought But within the layers of his narrative is slowly revealed what he can t, or won t, see that his memory, despite what he wants to believe, is not unaffected by his childhood tragedies that his powers of perception, the heralded clarity of his vision, can be blinding as well as enlightening and that the simplest desires a child s for his parents, a man s for understanding may give rise to the most complicated truths.A masterful combination of narrative control and soaring imagination, When We Were Orphans is Kazuo Ishiguro at his best. When We Were Orphans made me realize that one can be deceived not only by people but also by books Honest to God I thought this book was about solving a mystery The protagonist being a celebrated detective added fuel to the deception No wonder I was disoriented by the middle of it trying desperately to understand what the mystery is all about Well I m not saying there was no mystery element of course there is a touch of that, but not the way I expected So there, I was deceived by a book But after all it was Ishiguro What did I expect, a normal detective story that unravels a mystery I should have known better So if anyone wants to read this book, you are warned This is no detective fiction Now that it is clear that this book is no detective fiction, I ll venture to say that it was of a man s self realization, his coming to terms with life Christopher Banks, a celebrated detective is haunted by the disappearance of his parents when he was a child His sole purpose in life is centered on solving the puzzle of their mysterious disappearance and finding them Although he doesn t realize, his entire young life was affected by his loss and his career were or less decided upon so as to be able to locate his parents one day However, his quest leads him to some shocking truths and devastating discoveries and he finally see to his utter dismay that people he naively trusted are not who they appear to be His quest of finding the truth is the wake up call of his life as he finally understands that he had lived in a delusion.The story is presented by the protagonist Christopher Banks himself in a series of memories as he revisit the events of his life For most part of the story, it was not all clear whether he is telling absolutely the truth, especially when it comes to his feelings, his perceptions From the beginning one can sense something amiss in him He had faced the worst nightmare a child could face losing his parents And one can see he lives in denial, in delusion It is no surprise that he should be an unreliable narrator The beauty of Ishiguro s books undoubtedly lies in his writing The tenderness, the compassion with which he writes about these flawed and tortured characters always strikes a major chord in the reader s heart Christopher Banks may be delusional, his narrative may be unreliable, but he certainly earns the readers unreserved sympathy The story also touches on the Second Sino Japanese War and his forthright account of brutality of the war is Ishiguro s contribution to the world to say no to war However, there is still a puzzle that I have not deciphered And that is the meaning and relevance of the title to the story Earlier in my read I thought it is because the main protagonist and couple of other characters employed were orphans But after the read was over, I m not quite so sure Although I cannot find a better interpretation, I m convinced that there is some other meaning beyond my grasp Overall, I enjoyed this read And although the story was nothing, not even close to what I expected it to be, the actual story that was presented through a flawed character held my interest and kept me engaged. Second reading Ishiguro s novels are nothing if not enigmatic There s disorientation the reader is never quite sure where he stands When We Were Orphans is a quasi Bildungsroman or coming of age detective story It is set over a period of fifty years or so in London, Shanghai and then back in London again.Narrator Christopher Banks is born of English parents with whom he lives in the International Concession in Shanghai Around 1915 or so they disappear, when he is about nine, and are believed victims of the kidnapping gangs operating in the city at the time His guardians send him to London where he attends Oxford At one gathering with college friends he is given a large magnifying glass as a prank, but Christopher, whose sense of irony is nonexistent at this point, takes the gift very seriously Very soon he is pursuing a successful career as a detective in London His successes however are mysteries, enigmas, as is his process of achieving them The reader is intentionally excluded from the procedural detail of Christopher s cases Ishiguro busies himself with overturning the conventions of the detective novel There s a lot of highly idealistic talk at this stage by Christopher and those he meets about answering the call and subverting evil The argument we soon realize is far too broad and encompassing After a while it takes on a cartoonish or comicbook impracticality This is also intentional In the early part of the novel, Christopher often equivocates He s fond of phrases like it is entirely possible, or I do not remember quite how this came about The watchword for Christopher in the first third of the novel is denial He is living an extended adolescence He hasn t grown up We see this childishness in his belief, carried to the nth degree once he returns to Shanghai, that he can rescue his parents that, in fact, his parents are still alive and living with their kidnappers somewhere in the city This is pure fantasy, which is how Christopher rolls.A virgin with heterosexual leanings, early on he is attracted to the social gadfly and fellow orphan Sarah Hemmings There s clearly a connection on the level of desire but Christopher has little notion of what he might do with Sarah were she in his possession Sex is a mystery Note to lovers of literary sex, this novel is without it There are, thankfully, no erection inducing passages Sarah represents an overturning of the love of his life convention, rife in thrillers mostly of the lower grade.Unlike Christopher s mother, who undertakes what turns out to be a very dangerous campaign against British opium trafficking in China a very thrusting woman who completely belittles and alienates her spouse Sarah believes she can only be effective in life if she is married to the right man When Christopher doesn t do anything despite her repeated public praising of him, she marries an old dodderer, Sir Cecil Medhurst, with the object of goading him into one last bout of productivity, presumably diplomatic we re never quite sure what Sir Cecil does before he croaks This lights a fire under Christopher who realizes the time has come to rescue his parents He seems completely unaware of the fact that he s really going to Shanghai to find Sarah The first fifth of the book is about Christopher pursuing his detective career as a young man in London, 1932 The second fifth is all flashback to Christopher s childhood in Shanghai with his parents, his Japanese friend and neighbor, Akira, with whom he plays, and someone known as Uncle Philip, who is not a real uncle at all This section outlines Christopher s na ve mindset which persists for the first two thirds of the book Christopher returns to Shanghai just after the Japanese invasion of 1937 Now the story distorts into almost camp surrealism Things get very bizarre Ishiguro intentionally conflates Christopher s purpose in the city Is he there to solve the war situation Is he there to rescue his parents Or is he there for another unnamed purpose The reader is never sure Then there s his cryptic raging against the city fathers for having let the situation deteriorate so much The reader is never quite sure what he s talking about This disorientation is an analog to Christopher s mental state He doesn t know what he s talking about and so can be called highly unreliable.The detective work he does is like a child s game carried out in a friend s backyard The cartoonishly large magnifying glass implies a focus that Christopher is entirely lacking Everyone in Shanghai knows he s there, but why he s there is constantly shifting A fellow at the British Consulate, Grayson, seems on one level to actively mock Christopher by going on at length about a reception to be held in a public park once Christopher rescues his parents, which seems far from certain This is so deftly handled though that we aren t sure if it s cruelty on Grayson s part or if he possesses the same depths of credulity as Christopher It is not until an excruciating scene in Shanghai amid fighting between the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists that Christopher comes upon the brutal truth I am reminded of J.G Ballard s Empire of the Sun here, also set in Shanghai I don t want to reveal how the revelation is brought about Let s just say, that the last fifth of the book represents an astonishing pulling together and elegant recapitualtion of what had up to this point seemed to be aimless and disconnected bits of information Suddenly bang the novel jigsaws itself together The achievement here is outstanding I think it represents, as the early part of the novel was an usurpation of detective novel conventions, a bit of an homage to them There s this turnabout aspect to the narrative that is entirely unexpected and thrilling The reader must really trust the novelist here The first two thirds of the book seem almost desultory, but in fact this is meant to reflect the fact that Christopher Banks is not quite an adult He equivocates, he hedges, he sidesteps, etc., as opposed to the last fifth of the book where he becomes certain, sure of things, determined in matters of the heart In short, Christopher Banks has grown up And it is one of the most ruthless and pitiless maturations I have ever come across in fiction When Christopher becomes aware not only of how he has lived his life, but of the delusions he has had to willfully maintain in order to live it the reader feels sledgehammered There s that wonderful interval when we read on breathless, stunned, appalled, as if our lives depended on it Christopher s earlier misdirection and hesitation and willed ignorance are swept away He comes of age and as with all of us this means facing down some pretty cruel truths This to my mind is Ishiguro s best novel, though the others are worthwhile and I recommend them without reservation, especially The Remains of the Day In this one there is a powerful distillation and crystallization of Ishiguro s methods and voice If you only read one novel by Ishiguro make it this one. My favourite Ishiguro On the contrary, it is never too late to, as you put it, pick up the scent Indeed, it most certainly isn t This book was so, so, deep I feel like my emotions have been stretched to breaking point when reading If you ve not ready any of Ishiguro s novels before, then don t be deceived, this is no mere crime novel this is an exploration of the human soul Ishiguro has written such a powerful novel here In the process of questioning the fleeting nature of the past, the fickleness of the human mind, he shows us that memories are just memories they can never be recreated or relived They ve gone Despite what human will would try to dictate, it can t ever be changed it will always remain in the past it s finished with The same is very true for human character the person you will be in twenty years is not the same as the person you are today Time changes all, even memories The power of Ishiguro s words resides in his evocation of a longing to return to the past, and the futility of it Your farther never arrived at the office this morning But, I m sure there is a perfectly simple explanation Some novels just speak so clearly to you on a personal level, and this one shook me to the core Christopher Bank s story transcends that of the mere plot, and his quest to find his parents The details aren t important These are simple vessels for Ishiguro to capture his meaning Banks has become a celebrated detective, but his haunted by his memories of his childhood So, eventually, he acts on them, and tries to return to a time long past he finds everything has changed, and he, himself, has changed along with everyone he once knew the past is dead It only lives in his mind The structure of the novel accentuated this The narrative continuously shifted time perspectives, which suggested Bank s longing to return to his home He tells the story of his childhood, in parts, in a fragmented and sporadic narrative The need to return builds up slowly, inside him, until there is no other possible avenue of pursuit It s simply what he must do to carry on living Life is never that straightforward though You cannot so easily pick up the tatters of an old life they are discarded much easily Time changes all, and war is just another catalyst in a dark world.Ishiguro is an excellent writer I bought a copy of each and every book he has written after reading this I simply must work my way through them all This is not a genre of fiction I don t normally like I tend to avoid modern literary fiction like the plague Perhaps that should change I hope all of Ishiguro s novels are as good as this and the The Remains of the Day because I just may have found an author to add to my favourites list I ll be reading Never Let Me Go later this year. Many reviews here have commented on Ishiguro s unreliable narrators let s let that classification stand, whether or not it is entirely valid or really applies to all of his work , as if this aspect of his fiction is so obvious, or that it has been so exhaustively mined, that there is little to nothing left to say about such a narrative strategy.Christopher Banks, When We Were Orphans narrator, is certainly unreliable, yes But our relationship to him as an unreliable narrator is a strange one, an inverted one I think that it s fairly clear to the reader early on that Banks s memories and perceptions do not align with those of the people with whom he surrounds himself and or encounters His school chums and his one time guardian recount for him their memories of his child self as a lonely, melancholy boy, which contravene his insistent accounting of himself as a sociable, friendly, put on a brave face type of lad His insistence, which seems to verge on a quiet, private hysteria, his disproportionate insult, and the confluence of multiple others POV point us to the fact that the schism between how he sees himself and how the world sees saw him is not just a matter of opinion The novel shows us, time and again, that Christopher is unwilling, unable, to reconcile not only his memory but his ongoing lived experience see the scene at the wedding where he is apparently subjugated to teasing and humiliation, but insists that said teasers are his friends, etc., and note that we never get to see the actual scene to the lived experience and memory of others We also never get to see him work, to uncover anything, to solve anything Here s where I m sort of getting to my excruciatingly long winded pointWhen We Were Orphans tells us, its readers, that it is a mystery novel The book offers us one story, the disappearance of Christopher s parents, claiming that this story is its central mystery and suggesting, by form and structure, that this will be the riddle we puzzle out as we read, alongside Christopher Thus, we enter into a sort of contract with the book in which we agree to be careful, astute readers, who by dint of our diligence and hard work will be treated to the satisfaction of resolution.All along, however, there is a secondary mystery that is actually the primary mystery, and that mystery is twofold one, when will Christopher realize how deeply, irreparably damaged his perception of the world is, and two, WE THINK when we will learn the truth that his distorted vision has necessarily been hiding from us, despite our best efforts to see through it Usually, in a novel that relies on an unreliable narrator ignore the inherent contradiction , part of the reader s pleasure is untangling the skeins of the narrator s logic in order to arrive at some approximation of truth But Orphans rejects that second possibility completely I am in no way suggesting that this novel s project is one of relativism, in which we re meant to see that there is no objective truth, or if there is, we cannot access it All along the mystery mysteries is are just a diversion, a smokescreen, a trick that I admire deeply and totally respect that leads us in a circle back to what we see, finally, is an absent center There is no mystery in the book The truth isn t the point There is only the fact of Christopher s mutilating orphaning, his abandonment His grievous misapprehension of his parents abduction leave taking, the emotional psychological violence of it,and his child s need to make sense and order of the insensible strand him in mental time he is marooned in a make believe world in which detectives are great heroes and even celebrities, a la Sherlock Holmes a world that history tells us did not exist as such, especially in twentieth century Britain.When Sarah offers Christopher the chance to reject his false understanding of the world, to see clearly, and to reject a vision of himself one that is manufactured by an innocent egotism narcissism that has sustained him all along in which he is the savior not only of his parents, but also of an entire city and perhaps nation, he is, finally, unable to do so To give that up would be to negate himself, to reject his very identity He would be twice orphaned.There s a lot going on here vis a vis the orphaning, of course colonialism and imperialism, the patronizing helping of the east by the west, sexual politics and power, issues of class, et al But as I read I felt compelled by what s missing in this novel than what s there.I ll confess to being somewhat befuddled by and disappointed in the final revelation concerning Christopher s mother, and unsure about the necessity of Jennifer My only thought about Jennifer s utility and despite its coldness, that word seems apt is that perhaps she s meant to enact the cycle of violence that orphaning perpetuates she is orphaned twice over, and the novel s end suggests how devastating this has been for her.When I finished the book I found myself returning to its title, over and then over again First person narratives usually require, despite old Bobby D s admonition, a looking back They are necessarily retrospective My mind lingers on the titular When Despite how sad the book is, despite its ambiguous ending, the title left me feeling hopeful for Christopher in that it seems to suggest that the time of his orphaning, of Jennifer s, and even of Sarah s sigh , is past, is gone and that, no longer orphans, having chosen to look forward, to abandon their isolation and to rely on each other, on other people they might, oh they just might be happy.