Written by Kazuo Ishiguro
CHRISTOPHER BANKS is the narrator and detective hero of this acclaimed new novel by Kazuzo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans (2000). Or is he? Christopher is nine years old when his father, a British businessman possibly inadvertently involved in trafficking opium--disappears from the family home in turn-of-the century Shanghai. But boys will be boys, and so Christopher and his best friend Akira while away the time playing detectives, dreaming of cracking impossible cases and winning fame and glory.
Until Christopher's mother, an outspoken anti-opium crusader, also disappears, also under mysterious circumstances, and he is sent to live in England in a home he has never seen, raised by an aunt he's never met. Haunted by his past, he dedicates his life to becoming a great detective, and at last he actually becomes one (or at least he claims). We're talking Sherlock Holmes here, by the way. Nothing as immediate and brutal as Sam Spade or Race Williams here, thank you. In Christopher's world, everything is quite refined, thankyouverymuch.
Finally, in 1937, he returns to Shanghai, now a world famous detective, bent on solving the great mystery of his life, and to rescue his parents, whom he believes have been held captive for twenty years. (Let's just say Chris has a few reality-perception issues to work through.)
But it's a different world from the one he left as a boy -- the world is on the brink of world war and the Japanese are invading China. And, as Christopher pursues his investigation, aided by his long-lost childhood friend, now a Japanese soldier (or is he?), it soon becomes clear that the boundaries between fact and fantasy are beginning to blur, and that Christopher may not be such a reliable narrator after all. In fact, it eventually becomes quite clear that Christopher may be downright delusional, and even a bit of an asshole.
Using the conventions of detective fiction, Ishiguro dares to call into question almost everything we think we know. In many ways, the reader himself is forced, then, to become the detective, and to seek out the truth underlying Christopher's narration. And as the reader is drawn into Christopher's world, and Shanghai itself is torn apart by warring Chinese and Japanese and the bullets buzz through the air, the very walls between reality and imagination begin to buckle and heave.
This is an emotionally wrenching, beautifully-written book, though a little on the precious and ponderous side at times, that has LITERATURE stamped all over it. It may drag occasionally, and it may even piss you off, but that's cool, because that's what great books should do: dare to ask tough and important questions of us. A little squirming isn't a bad thing. Yeah, When We Were Orphans is a mystery, but even more, it's about the whims of memory, the stories we make of our own lives and the sometimes tenuous grasp we have on our own truths. It also finds the time to shine a hard, piercing light into such areas as cultural displacement, social climbing, the drug trade, the class system, racism and childhood trauma. And yet, on its most basic level, it's also a great character-driven story. If you can stick with it, and plow through the at-times stifling formality of Christopher's world, you'll find there's a kick-ass story under there.
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 and emigrated to England at the age of five. He is the author of four previous novels, including The Unconsoled (1995) and the Booker Prize -winning The Remains of the Day (19890 . Ishiguro's work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. In 1995, he received an Order of the British Empire for service to literature, and in 1998 was named a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.
"Perhaps there are those who who are able to go through 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."
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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