When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro- Book Review

Kazuo Ishiguro was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a very pleasing development.  He’s an amazing author who you can genuinely recommend to people because he’s not too ‘wordy’.  Not much really seems to happen in his books, I think because they are all written in the past tense which automatically removes the sense of drama and urgency.  Still there are moments in all his books (well all the ones I’ve read) that are like being hit in the face with a brick, in an emotional way…

For the truth is, over the past year, I have been increasingly preoccupied with my memories…

On the front cover it reads ‘By the author of The Remains of the Day‘.  And that’s what I felt all the way through this book, it strongly reminded by of that TTOTD, even it was written in 2000, 11 years afterwards.  But our protagonist/narrator is an English gent exploring his past through his memories in much the same detached way as in Remains.  The slight difference in form here is that the book is divided into sections which move forwards in time a few weeks, months, or years.  This gives the feeling of moving forwards as well as backwards, and giving some more plot and character development.

Christopher is a renowned private detective, he grew up in Shanghai but left for England as a child after both his parents disappeared.  After years of success in England he feels compelled to return to Shanghai and finally find his parents.  This is within the context of building tensions in Europe in the 1930’s, a terrible opium epidemic in China, and the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.  Somehow, which I never quite ‘got’, solving his parents disappearance is somehow supposed to prevent WW2 or something…

At the heart of the maelstrom threatening to suck in the whole of the civilised world, is a pathetic conspiracy of denial; a denial of responsibility…

Ishiguro explores memories.  Some of Christopher’s memories are fixed but disjointed and detached from a wider meaning because he was a child at a time.  Some of the odd episodes he half remembers only become meaningful when he gets older and learns more about the world around him, and starts to put things together.  And some things just get more confused.  I like this understanding of how memories can shift, and, as a result, the past can change.  And we are, necessarily the most reliable narrators of our own lives.

Consequently, I cannot be sure today how much of my memory of that morning derives from what I actually witnessed from the landing, and to what extent it has merged over time with my mother’s accounts of the episode.

I enjoyed the book, I found it interesting and compelling.  But like I said not much seems to happen for quite a while.  So not for you if you need high-octane car chases…It does ramp up a bit in the last few chapters both in action and emotionally.  It did get me right in the feels.  In many ways, this book is about missed opportunities, and losing people you once loved or could have loved.  I had to take a moment upstairs.

But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents.

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