Christopher Banks is born in early twentieth century Shanghai to British parents. Growing up in the international quarter, sequestered from the somewhat shadier side of Shanghai life, he wiles away the hours with his Japanese best friend, Akira. Both of them vow to never leave the city, although the threat of Akira being returned to Japan looms over them. Unfortunately, fate intervenes when Christopher’s father disappears without a trace – followed, shortly afterwards, by his mother, and Christopher is forced to return ‘home’ to a country he has never known.
Under the care of a rich benefactor, his Aunt, Christopher rises through the ranks of London society to become a celebrated detective, but the truth about what happened to his parents hangs over him. No matter how many mysteries he solves, this one will always plague him. His desperation to find out the truth eventually overcomes him, and he finds himself returning to Shanghai in the midst of the Sino-Japanese war.
All along the gap between perception and reality has been ever-present; the dissonance between what Christopher remembers and the actual course of events. Ishiguro is the master of the unreliable narrator, and this perception gap does nothing but widen by the time Christopher reaches Shanghai. The reader is plunged into a scene of total disorientation as Christopher launches a wild goose chase around the city, self-assured that he has discovered the home where his parents have been kept prisoner for upwards of two decades. It is just a case, now, of getting there and retrieving them, before they can all live happily ever after.
Things, of course, are much more complicated than this.
Whilst the world is falling apart – on the brink of yet another global war – the central trauma at Christopher’s life is all that concerns him: to uncover the truth about what really happened to his parents all those years ago. And when he does – not all is as it seemed.
‘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.’
Ishiguro writes beautifully, pulling us along in rich prose, down the recesses of memory that are never quite as they appear. I loved how the novel was set in both pre- and post- war London and Shanghai; two of my favourite cities. The book had an ethereal quality about it – it isn’t one for readers looking for a conventional detective novel, but rather a much more ambiguous, meandering look at the effects of memory and time.
I also enjoyed the way in which our enigmatic narrator takes us by the hand through his life’s escapades – a naive perspective on the world that never quite escapes the trappings of childhood imagination. When We Were Orphans is a book that should be read for the undeniable quality of Ishiguro’s writing, if nothing else.