Wednesday, February 19, 2014

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nostalgia. Memories from childhood. The ways that events in our childhood have formed us as adults. Throw in a first-person narrative, an exotic setting in the past (early 20th c Shanghai), and a mystery to solve and you have a book that will capture my attention. So I read it in two evenings.

Ishiguro is well known for his book The Remains of the Day and the movie based on the book which starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. When We Were Orphans shares that early 20th c British sensibility, a formality and repression of atmosphere and speech.  I have also read his book Never Let Me Go, a chilling dystopia about clone children who discover their only reason for existence was for farming of organs.

The orphan of the book is Christopher Banks, the only child of a British couple living in Shanghai in the early 20th c. The narrator retells his childhood from the eyes of his child self, revealing secrets as he discovered them in adulthood. I dearly love novels that show the adult world from the eyes of children. Rumor Godden is a master of this technique.

Christopher's parents find themselves in an untenable situation. His father's company is in the business of selling opium to the Chinese, and his mother wants to reform the business. But if his father quits, they will never be able to afford to return to England. One day the father disappears. The 'best' detective in Shanghai is assigned to the case. Christopher and his best friend Akira, whose family are expatriate Japanese, pretend to be detectives solving the case in their fantasies. Then one day a family friend takes Christopher on a lark, abandons him, and the child returns home to find his mother has also gone missing.

Christopher is sent to an 'aunt' in England, and goes to public school. He believes he has fit into English school, but tries to hide his commitment and dream of becoming a world famous detective who some day solves the case of his missing parents and brings them home again.

Christopher does become a famous detective, and believes he has solved the mystery of his parent's disappearance and so returns to Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese invasion of China. From there the novel shows the clash of memory and reality as Christopher goes on a misguided journey into the middle of the war. After this quest that leads to disorientation and near madness, he finally meets the man who tells him the chilling truth about his parents.

Although I enjoyed this book, the ending was out of keeping with the rest of the book. Many readers would be bored and detached from the story until Christopher returns to his childhood home. The big reveal seemed to be from a different kind of book, lurid and somewhat cheap. There are references to cases Christopher has solved but no description. He remains a shadowy figure, not quite defined, and knowable mostly through his own memory of his own life.

The book did make me think about how we all view our childhood askew, rarely able to  understand it from any other perspective than that of our untrustworthy memory. Recently I reread my diary to learn that I had totally mixed up who was involved in an event I often have thought of. No wonder that at our reunion the gal I thought this had occurred with hardly could place me. Her presence in my life had made a greater impact than mine in hers. So much that I had placed her in memories where she did not belong.

Christopher's childhood expectations of what had happened to his parents carried into his adulthood. He follows chimeras and shadows when he could have enjoyed love and companionship. And in the end he is left wondering, had he based an entire life on a child's fantasy?

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