Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro


Kazuo Ishiguro returns to what interests him most in his Booker Shortlisted When We Were Orphans: the duplicity of memory, social mores and the fusion of Asian and English culture.

It’s 1930s England and Christopher Banks is in the process of becoming a famed detective.  Suddenly he finds himself on all the best guest lists and talked about on the social scene – ironic really as Banks seems an awkward, terribly English type, horrified by public displays of affection and he’d certainly never make a scene.

But then a scene is made and it’s all due to the magnetic and ballsy high society (well sort of) Sarah.  She wants Banks to add her as his ‘plus one’ to a charity dinner, he doesn't want to (even though he clearly fancies her) as he’s already said he’s going alone (did I say he’s terribly English?).

I can sympathise with Banks.  I mean, these kind of social quandaries often plague me.  What to do when you see someone you sort of know when you’re walking through town?  Do you make eye contact?  Nod?  Pretend you didn't see them?  Duck into a shop?  Cross the road to avoid the whole sorry dilemma and hope they didn't notice you?

If Banks is reminding you of another Ishiguro character, then I'm not surprised.  Come on, he’s clearly Stevens.  Good ol’ Stevens, our awfully repressed butler from Remains of the Day, who just couldn't articulate what he really wanted.  It’s hard to read When We Were Orphans and not hear Steven’s voice channelled through the first person narrative.

Anyway back to this Sarah.  She seems kind of interesting.  I wonder what role she’ll play in Banks’ story?  The answer is not much.  She’s what we might call a red herring (and there’s a lot of those in this book).  Instead we’re drawn further and further into Banks’ crazy, hallucinatory inner life and his decidedly unique way of looking at the world.

Banks’ parents mysteriously disappeared when he was a boy living in Old Shanghai – possibly kidnapped.  His father worked for Morganrook and Byatt doing something ‘official but a bit dodgy to do with opium’ while his mother was a very vocal campaigner against the opium trade – often at odds with those around her (you can see where this might be going).  As you’d expect, this childhood event has cast a shadow over Banks, and it’s not long before he returns to Shanghai to try and solve the old case.

One of the issues I have with When We Were Orphans is I feel a bit duped.  What starts out as a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective story, interspersed with Banks’ memories of his parents and Japanese friend Akira in Shanghai, soon morphs into something else completely.

The latter sections of the novel are pretty much unbelievable.  Ridiculous plotting and contrived coincidences abound as Banks does his detective thing in Shanghai.  He returns to his childhood home and the family living there invite him for dinner and then say they’ll move out once he rescues his parents (they went missing 25 years ago) so they can all move back in together happily.  Er…yeah.  Do you want to break it to him or shall I?  

Banks also heads right into the front line of the Sino-Japanese War, darting among the troops and locals, getting soldiers and police to drop their weapons and escort him about, even bumping into his childhood friend Akira.  As you do.  I was fully expecting some kind of deus ex machina ending – you know, like the ones in Star Trek when we find out the alien who’s been tormenting the Enterprise and is about to kill its crew is just a kid and now daddy alien has ticked him off and sent him home without tea.  However I can’t believe that Ishiguro suddenly decided to go all airport fiction on us.  It seems that Banks is simply a lot more unreliable than I originally thought.

Looking back there were early signs of course.  Two old school acquaintances remember Banks as a loner weirdo, something he strenuously denies and attempts to dispute by providing some detailed ‘un-loserish’ memories.  Perhaps the biggest clue comes with the games he played as a kid with Akira, endlessly re-enacting the rescue of his parents and a welcoming home ceremony in their honour.  It’s hard not to see this motif appearing in his adult life on his return to Shanghai, and the more I think about it, the more I'm not sure what I can actually trust about the earlier sections.  I mean, why exactly don’t we see him solving any of his famous cases?  Instead, we always seem to meet him after he’s solved another one.

I know Ishiguro enjoys writing about memory – and how there’s a gap between what happened and what you remember happened.  But for me, When We Were Orphans is hard to pin down – I'm not really sure what its purpose is, apart from exposing the duplicity of memory, fantasy and unreliable narration.  There was nothing to hold me to this text, no real sense of character and the plot is far too smart for its own good.  When We Were Orphans is all about the clever and subtle manipulation of genre and reader, but it’ll leave you feeling cold.