28 May 2020

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro



I haven't read Ishiguro since a lit course in second year university where I fell in love with his novel The Remains of the Day. I found this book I hadn't even heard of randomly at Value Village (thrift stores are such great places to find books) and was really excited to finally read more of his fiction.

When We Were Orphans is about a Chinese detective named Christopher who is living as an adult in England. Christopher's parents both went missing when he was a child and he has always suspected they were kidnapped by a Chinese cartel. He works to become a famous detective and then returns to Shanghai to try and find his parents after 10+ have past.

I was pleased to find that all of the themes I loved from The Remains of the Day were alive and well in When We Were Orphans. The intersection of identity and nationality, for one, is very prominent in this book. Another big 'theme' would be a man who wastes his whole life obsessed with one thing. Christopher works furiously to become a famous detective and then returns to China to try and find his parents. He expects everything will remain the same when he does find them, and even plans to move right back into the house they lived in when he was a kid, etc. As the book goes on he begins to learn everyone, including his childhood best friend, has moved on and become a different person with different goals, except for him. It makes you really sad.

Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm."

Christopher is somewhat of an asexual character. Despite being hit on numerous times by another character, Sarah Hemmings, he is so narrow-minded in pursuit of his goal that he continues to blow her off. There's a sadness and a humour to this kind of character that I really liked, and it's something I remember from The Remains of the Day as well where the main character Stevens was also somewhat asexual. There's a really funny scene when Hemmings invites herself to be Christopher's plus one to a big gala and he straight up refuses to take her, even when she shows up dressed at the door, because he's already RSVP'd and didn't include a date.

Kazuo Ishiguro


Ishiguro also has a really beautiful and descriptive writing style that reminds you why his work is studied in Universities. I'm hormonal these days but I got all teary-eyed at the below passage - when I was a kid being separated from my parents was my actual greatest fear.

As I saw it, I was bound for a strange land where I did not know a soul, while the city steadily receding before me contained all I knew. Above all, my parents were still there, somewhere beyond that harbour, beyond that imposing skyline of the Bund, and wiping my eyes, I had cast my gaze towards the shore one last time, wondering if even now I might catch sight of my mother- or even my father- running to the quay, waving and shouting for me to return."

The actual detective element of the story was a bit lost on me. I had a hard time keeping up with the actual steps in his investigation into his parents kidnapping- but in the end it proves unimportant. 

This was a good book and I'm sad to have forgotten about Ishiguro all these years. I know Meg reviewed his novel Never Let Me Go years ago on here, and I'm definitely inspired to read more of his work. I am a sucker for the sadness you feel reading his books.

If I had to compare, I'd say I prefer The Remains of The Day's plot better, but hindsight is always 20/20 and I'm even keen to re-read that again because it's been so long. When I looked up the book to see if there are any kind of adaptations, I found a 2001 article from The Guardian where Ishiguro himself says that this isn't his best book. 

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