Unquestionably one of the best authors writing today, Kazuo Ishiguro has said himself of When We Were Orphans is ‘not my best book.’ Sadly, that’s something of an understatement. It’s dire.
Once more, Ishiguro presents the unreliable narrator to tell his story. Once more, as in his earlier novels, honour, status, discretion and protocol are at the forefront of the behaviour and attitude of the unreliable narrator. Only in Christopher Banks, Ishiguro has produced a smug, self-satisfied, racist bore.
True, raised in Shanghai in the 1920s in the International Settlement area of the city, Banks, a product of his time, is likely representative of British/European imperialism. And, like the politics of the 1930s, his return to the city to ostensibly solve the case of his missing parents leaves Banks/Europe like a fish out of water in understanding the changes in the region with the rise of local communism and the very real threat of Japan.
But the story does not hold – the reality being that as I moved towards its conclusion, I started to wonder if the whole thing was an opium-induced fantasy and Banks would wake up somewhere in the very Shanghai backstreets he was banned from visiting as a child.
Sent to live in England following the disappearance of his parents when he was just 10 years old, Cambridge-educated Banks becomes one the most celebrated detectives. But it is not until 1937 he feels he is ready to ‘solve’ the case of his missing parents. And what follows is a ludicrous plot whereby members of the European community and even some local Chinese believe by discovering the whereabouts of his parents (some 20 years after they were kidnapped), he will also avert some (unnamed) political world crisis.
It seriously tested my patience! Admittedly, Ishiguro is a master writer and descriptions at times were elegant and engaging (ridiculous though the last scenes are as he and ‘Akira’ weave their way through the destruction that is the Chaipei district, the narrative is fast paced) that kept me reading. But overall, the prose is somewhat dull (atypical of Ishiguro’s other works) and lacking in local colour: little of the ‘feel’ or ‘emotion’ of Shanghai is present.
But it is Banks himself and that somewhat absurd plotline that undermines When We Were Orphans. It is by far Ishiguro’s weakest novel.
Surprisingly shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, it lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin. But When We Were Orphans also ensured that the likes of Zadie Smith’s acclaimed White Teeth and new novels by Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing and J.G.Ballard did not even feature in the running.