KAZUO ISHIGURO – When We Were Orphans. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover; first edition, September 2000. Trade paperback: Vintage, October 2001. British edition: Faber & Faber, hc, 2000.

KAZUO ISHIGURO When We Were Orphans

    When We Were Orphans is a novel about a detective, but not a detective novel. Christopher Banks was born in Shanghai, his parents disappeared when he was only nine, and he was sent to live in England by his Uncle Philip.

    Leaving public school, he set his mind on the curious career of amateur sleuth, one he soon accomplished brilliantly. He became a famous figure in London with an international reputation despite his youth.

   But a quite simple case introduces him to Sarah Hemmings, and it is she who draws him back to Shanghai, a city quite different from that of his childhood as the Sino-Japanese War is now raging and threatens to engulf the whole world in its brutality and madness.

   Shanghai on the eve of World War II is no place to pursue a budding romance, and it is a world both too real and too brutal for professions such as Christopher Banks, much to real for a young man who determines to uncover the mystery of his own past and finds that the one thing he cannot do is escape his own preconceptions, his own childhood memories, and the complexity of truth, guilt, and even innocence, including the secret of a Chinese warlord Wu Kang, the shadowy criminal known as the Yellow Snake, and the loss of his parents.

   He must also face the loss of Sarah and a shocking betrayal hidden from him by his own childhood illusions.

KAZUO ISHIGURO When We Were Orphans

    …our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through the long years the shadows of lost parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see though all our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.

   Ultimately Christopher solves his greatest case, but as in life such solutions are not always satisfying, and sometimes the only thing to do is to keep on. Christopher is ultimately a figure both tragic and successful. He solves his mysteries, but he cannot change who he is.

   Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, and came to England as a youth. His brilliant novels have earned him a Booker Prize and the title of Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from France. His best known book, Remains of the Day, was made into a major film with Anthony Hopkins. Since When We Were Orphans he has also written Never Let Me Go, a major novel and an important literary work that uses elements of both science fiction and horror. He is a writer who bears watching.

   When We Were Orphans is a major novel. It is also a compulsively readable one, but it should not be mistaken for a detective story, at least not one where the question of who-dunit bears much of the weight of the story.

   As in real life, solutions to mysteries don’t always bring satisfaction, and there are mysteries that cannot be solved by deductive reasoning or without the risk of a wounded heart.