Vintage International, 2000
ISBN 0-375-72610-1
The stories that Booker Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro chooses to tell in his novels speak of a considerable imagination. They are each one different, from the lonely butler in The Remains of the Day to the Kafkaville lunacy of The Unconsoled. This ability to handle variety is one of Mr. Ishiguro’s talents. In his latest novel, When We Were Orphans, again he takes to new territory–a veritable world of suspense. But this semi-detective novel suffers from a major distraction. Mr. Ishiguro’s choice of voice makes the inventive and flexible story fall flat. What could have been a rich and colorful tale becomes surprisingly uninteresting, even frustrating.
         When We Were Orphans is the story of Christopher Banks, an orphan and a detective. These two circumstances combine in his search for the truth about what happened to his parents, who disappeared when he was a child growing up in the International Settlement in Shanghai. We follow Christopher here and there as he builds his professional reputation, but the story really gets going when he decides to go back to Shanghai in the perilous beginning of World War II. There are various other characters, several of whom seem to have been taken whole out of some other book (perhaps Mr. Ishiguro’s next novel) and left carelessly on the page.
         When a reader has to help a book out by making excuses, there is something wrong. Embroidering our fantasies onto the world of a book is a compliment, but having to make up for the shortcomings of a novel is not. Yet I was left continually trying to invent reasons for Christopher’s actions, motives and (primarily) absurd language. Mr. Ishiguro was celebrated for his perfect tone in The Remains of the Day, for his evocation of the subtleties of domestic servitude. When We Were Orphans, however, is more similar in style to Mr. Ishiguro’s Kafka tribute, The Unconsoled. In Orphans, the author’s clarity and a light touch have been replaced by a grid of pointless and repetitive language. In addition, the plot seems almost carelessly thrown together. What saves the novel is the setting, but the contrast between language and context is off-putting.
         Almost from the beginning of When We Were Orphans, the first person narrator’s pedantic tone threatens to suck the juice out of the story. It is brittle, over formal, and surprising inflexible and dull. Christopher seems addicted to awkward expressions like "since I am now recalling." The patterns of his language repeat, inelegantly, giving Christopher the sound of someone pretending to be formal: a high school student’s idea of an upper-class Englishman. "It is perhaps worth mentioning," he says, only to say in the following sentence, "it is perhaps surprising." There is also a profusion of "quite." The cumulative effect is to make Christopher a bore, at the best. At the worst, every sentence of When We Were Orphans reads like a failed attempt at atmosphere.
        The novel eventually descends into a region of murkiness, where the reader and the protagonist grasp at moments of clarity together. Christopher races into a war zone to look for the house where his parents are being kept and enters a place of darkness and confusion. There is a wonderful sense of make believe in the way everyone talks about Christopher’s parents as if the intervening years have not even happened. This dreamlike inconsistency could be frustrating to some people, but I found it one of the freshest touches in the book.
         Still, the plot seems hastily strung together. New elements are mentioned in heavy-handed, suspense-inducing asides ("an evening which, as I shall explain, was to prove far more significant than I could then have imagined"). The apparent point is to make us wonder. Unfortunately, in most cases the significance is minor, but even significant events grow a little flat under such a pointed reminder.
        A common critique of the novel is that it is brilliantly written, yet disappointing, soggy in plot. I disagree. The story, for all its flimsiness or unpredictability, could have yet made an engrossing read. It is the language that lets it down. There are flashes of excellence throughout the story. The meeting of Christopher with his childhood friend Akira in the war zone is a sly delight. Without the narrator noticing anything, Mr. Ishiguro manages to touch on psychology, fear, racism and a host of other little details. Also full of a charged, humorous energy is Christopher’s headlong dash into every possibility in his search for his parents. Mr. Ishiguro was himself a young child when he was transplanted from Japan to Britain. Perhaps this is why the sections of Orphans that show Christopher as a young boy in Shanghai are among the best in the novel. Even the freshest parts of the book, however, are encased in a lattice of poor language and uninteresting episodes. There isn’t enough light to get through the gloom.
        At the end of the novel, there is a dénouement, and as with most suspenseful tales, it is interesting to find out the "secret." Yet throughout the novel it takes almost an effort of will to stay with the story. Mr. Ishiguro has once again come up with a deft story, place and time. Somehow in the telling, however, he has struck a sour note.