Spoiler alert: the main character cannot be trusted, neither can the author for that matter. In When We Were Orphans Kazuo Ishiguro delivers a convoluted detective story that borders on the inane. Christopher Banks is our narrator and protagonist, a self-described famous detective in England who spent his early years in Shanghai.
One day his father disappears and soon after his mother, a woman actively fighting the opium trade. At the age of ten Christopher is left alone and returns to England sent to live with his aunt. Now in the 1930s, Christopher decides to return to Shanghai to solve the case of his parents’ disappearance.
Once he arrives in China, everyone he meets seems to know all about him and somehow both the foreign residents of the city and Christopher himself believe that, by resolving his parents’ case, he will simultaneously absolve all the trouble between the Japanese and Chinese as well as bring order to the world. Hm…that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?
In addition to this befuddlement, Christopher strikes up a romance with a young woman of the aristocracy he knew in London. They plan to run away together, yet the ever cautious master detective jilts her in view of carrying through with his rescue mission. As the novel hits its climax, Christopher forges his way into Japanese territory where he imagines that his parents are being kept prisoner in an old building. He also runs into a Japanese soldier who he somehow believes to be his childhood Akira.
Although the scenes where Christopher navigates his way through war-torn sections of Shanghai are artfully written, they do not make up for the convoluted nonsense of the rest of the story itself. The entire book feels like a walk through heavy fog in which one reaches out for blurry objects that don’t actually exist.
It makes for a confusing and frustrating read. Christopher’s delusions never reach a point of clarity and by the novel’s end one wonders if Ishiguro is any more clued into the storyline than his audience is.
Although the novel did not impress me, I did enjoy John Lee’s reading of When We Were Orphans. His voice perfectly personifies Christopher’s character and attitude with the propriety of a British detective in the London of the 1930s.