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. Ishiguros talents.
In his latest novel, When We Were Orphans
, again he takes
to new territorya veritable world of suspense. But this semi-detective
novel suffers from a major distraction. Mr. Ishiguros choice
of voice makes the inventive and flexible story fall flat. What
could have been a rich and colorful tale becomes surprisingly uninteresting,
When We Were
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. Ishiguros 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 Christophers
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. Ishiguros
Kafka tribute, The Unconsoled
. In Orphans
, the authors
clarity and a light touch have been replaced by a grid of pointless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 narrators
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 students 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
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 Christophers
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 Christophers 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
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
isnt 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.