When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – Review

Born in Nagasaki, Japan in late 1954, the novelist and four-time Booker Prize nominee Kazuo Ishiguro spent just five years of his upbringing in his native land. His family moved to Surrey, England in 1960 and the young writer-to-be completed his education at the universities of Kent and East Anglia. One can imagine from these biographical facts a deep empathy with the principal protagonist of his fifth novel When We Were Orphans (2000). Here we have an individual born to English parents but fated to pass the most impressionable years of his childhood in the vastly different environs of the Far East.

Flashback to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel ‘When We Were Orphans’.


The commencement of the novel finds us in pre-Second World War England. Christopher Banks has steadily ascended the ladder of his chosen profession and become a celebrated detective. He has harnessed wit and natural ability to solve many a puzzling case. Yet, ironically, the mystery that has always eluded him is the one closest to home: the inexplicable disappearance of his parents in Old Shanghai when he was a boy. With storm clouds gathering daily over Europe and the world as a whole, Banks decides he can delay no longer his return to Shanghai. He will puzzle out the conundrum surrounding his parents’ vanishing, come what may. He is convinced that in so doing the world will be spared the tumult on the horizon.

It is not that the detective is full of himself in setting such store on a connection between the personal and the greater good. Nevertheless, he is a man of high ideals, unshakeable self-belief and almost blind faith in his ability to serve humanity. In this he is highly reminiscent of Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day (1989). But whereas Stevens’ mistaken blind faith is largely centred on the figure of his employer, Banks’ rests on his preciously maintained childhood vision.

Everything might scatter. You might be right. I suppose it’s something we can’t easily get away from. People need to feel they belong. To a nation, to a race. Otherwise, who knows what might happen? This civilisation of ours, perhaps it’ll just collapse. And everything scatter, as you put it” – Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans

The Shanghai he returns to is markedly different to the one he lived in as a boy. The Sino-Japanese War is raging, even spilling over into the city’s International Settlement. But Banks presses on regardless through the Kafkaesque-like war zone. Many years have passed, his childhood friend Akira, now a Japanese soldier, warns. But the detective is deaf to this entreaty. Later, in response to a colonel in the Japanese regiment, he declares of his childhood that ‘ … it’s hardly a foreign land to me.’

As it is for Stevens in The Remains of the Day, the letting go, the facing up to the truth, is painful. Typically in Ishiguro’s work, failings are exposed time and time again, leading to moments of tremendous pathos. When different characters have the rugs pulled out from beneath them, laughter is never far from tears. This, again, is part and parcel of the novel’s Kafkaesque touch. Having said that, it is less pronounced in this book than in the writer’s 1995 masterpiece The Unconsoled.

Banks was a much loved, if ‘abandoned’, child – a state echoed in his relationship with the orphan girl he adopts when a young man. Early in When We Were Orphans there are some exquisite depictions of mother/son love. Closing scenes reveal the degree to which our hero’s mother loved him and continued to love him through the years of their separation. Hard won though it is, reconciliation of a sort is reached. Now, unquestionably, it is understood that things are done differently to how they were once done.

After all, when we were children, when things went wrong, there wasn’t much we could do to help put it right. But now we’re adults, now we can. That’s the thing, you see? Look at us, Akira. After all this time, we can finally put things right. Remember, old chap, how we used to play those games? Over and over? How we used to pretend we were detectives searching for my father? Now we’re grown, we can at last put things right” – Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans


Note: Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant is slated for release in 2015. 

Lindsay Boyd

Lindsay Boyd is a writer, personal carer and traveller, among other things, originally from outside Melbourne. He has published, and self-published, poetry, articles, stories and novels. He also writes screenplays. Earlier this year he published a two-book travel memoir, 'The Second of Three' and 'From a Caregiver's Point of View'. You can can discover more of Lindsay's work here.

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