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  • Writer's pictureJody Ferguson

When We Were Orphans - Book Review

Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born British author who has published numerous works of fiction, may be perhaps the most talented non-native writer of English since Joseph Conrad.

He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. His novel, When We Were Orphans, takes place in London and Shanghai, largely during the 1930s. I was drawn to this work because my novel Above the Water also partly takes place in Shanghai during this time period.

The first part of the book unfolds through the eyes of the young protagonist, Christopher Banks, who spends the first decade of his life in the 1910s in a wealthy British household in Shanghai’s International Settlement. He befriends a Japanese boy, Akira, who lives next door and they spend their spare time tormenting their amahs and playing detective. Christopher’s mother, it turns out, is violently opposed to her husband’s position with a British trading firm that is importing opium into China. The overwrought father eventually runs off with a mistress to Hong Kong and then Malaya. The authorities, however, suspect he has been kidnapped. The mother soon disappears a few weeks later—again kidnapping is suspected. Young Christopher returns to England to live as an orphan with an aunt and finishes university at Cambridge.

After his studies Banks moves to London and becomes a well-respected detective. In the back of his mind lies a determination to return to Shanghai and solve the mystery of his missing parents. Meanwhile, he meets and is charmed by the social-climbing Sally Hemmings. Sally eventually marries another man, but when she tells Banks she is traveling to Shanghai, she urges him to return to Shanghai to try and find out what happened to his parents.

Banks arrives in Shanghai in the fall of 1937, just after Black Saturday. The city is in the violent throes of the first great battle of the Sino-Japanese War. Banks feels he has pulled the loose ends together and discovered the fate of his parents. He spends time with Sally Hemmings, who is unhappy in marriage to her older husband, and they decide to elope. The novel becomes strange at this point, and we learn that Banks is convinced his parents are still being held hostage in a house, twenty years after they disappeared. He encounters Akira again (though it is not clear if the Japanese soldier is in fact Akira), and with his help Banks closes down on the suspected kidnappers’ nest. Then we find the horrible truth about the fate of Banks’ parents. His memories and his hopes have clouded the judgement he has become so renowned for.

The strange and terrible denouement of the novel does nothing to diminish Ishiguro’s beautiful prose in this work. It is a book that leads the reader down a path leading to closed doors and blind alleys. You find yourself needing to turn the pages to see what happens next. Now that I have finally read Ishiguro, I plan on reading more of his work.


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