Kazuo Ishiguro: When We Were Orphans

Having studied Ishiguro at University, I am painfully aware of the amount already written about his work, and it makes me (ever so slightly more) nervous about contributing my own thoughts to the dialogue. Of course this is true for most of the authors I have read and reviewed here, certainly there is enough written about Zola alone to fill a library, but Ishiguro stands out particularly because he is still alive. Ok, so Arundhati Roy is still alive and definitely kicking, yes. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s daughter was friends with my youngest sibling whilst they were at school together, and he has been to my house (I hid. I was too shy to say anything). This always haunts me when I read his books. Like no other author I am constantly aware of the reality of this person – the hand putting pen to paper. It’s odd.

But enough of this: to the novel itself! The protagonist is a precocious man called Christopher Banks who fulfils his life ambition to become a celebrated detective; an ambition formed after his parents are mysteriously abducted inShanghaiwhen he is still a boy. Christopher is a typical Ishiguro narrator – unreliable in the extreme. The facts presented at the outset become more and more unbalanced and uncertain as we progress through the novel. We are tempted at times to think of Christopher as utterly delusional, but he is our only guide through this fictive maze – perhaps made flesh by the rubble-strewn ‘warren’ he must negotiate at the end of the novel – so we must stick to him, and trust him as far as is reasonable. 

Like so many Ishiguro novels, there is a constant sense of unease; the feeling that there is always something significant just out of sight, or out of the range of our grasp. What is being kept from us? Is this paranoia justified or simply a reflection of our own expectations of storytelling?

Themes of importance, self-importance, significance and insignificance are explored in this novel under the broader horizon of the final gasps of Empire and the start of the Second World War. It is easy to see how these themes dovetail, especially when one is considering an awareness of authority in one’s narrator. How much of our narrator’s importance is merely self-importance? The interrelated nature of Christopher’s delusion, his strange childishness and the place the International Settlement holds in his heart is a fascinating set of clues for the reader to unravel. The International Settlement in Shanghai is portrayed obliquely at the start, through a lens of childhood, but as the action creeps closer to the present-day reality, the scales start to fall from our eyes. The International Settlement’s absurd conviction of it’s function as the centre of the universe becomes apparent just at the moment that Christopher starts to doubt it.

This is a novel about distortion, childhood, adulthood and memory; about delusion on a small and large scale, and about the human propensity for wilful ignorance or allowing inconvenient events to go unexamined and unseen. These are themes we have seen before in Ishiguro’s work, and themes we will doubtless see again, but the manner of delivery renders them fresh and vital and disturbing each and every time.

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