When We Were Orphans
An Intelligent and Nuanced BookBy Jane Maduram
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
It is rare that one finds so delicate and translucent a work as When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. In the author’s hands, the texture of modern life fades away to the slightest essence of perfection, tempered by hindsight and mellowed by experience. The story effortlessly weaves together the present and the past of the narrator, Christopher Banks, a detective who has an unusually distinct view of people and society. As he wanders through the high society of England and as a child in Shanghai, Banks seems an outsider distant not only from society but from humanity itself, a man trying to imitate the gestures and customs of the world around him in the hope that he will ultimately understand it. Part of his loss and confusion rests around the mystery of his parents, both of whom he abruptly lost in his childhood.
In the dreamy, almost hallucinatory world of the narrator, scenes take on an unnatural sense of resolution. The only passion existing in Christopher’s bleached life is his profession, an adult extension of the childhood games he used to play in Shanghai. Everything else seems unreal to Christopher, who is gifted with an unusually exceptional memory. Despite this, he has “been obliged to accept, in other words, that with each passing year, my life in Shanghai will grow less distinct, until one day all that will remain will be a few muddled images.” As if to ward this fear off, Christopher brings every detail he can remember into sharp focus, oddly recording the prescience of a child with an adult’s acknowledgement of fact. It is here that the author’s skill is most evident.
While the recitation of so many incidental and tangential details could easily stunt a lesser book, Ishiguro carries it off with wit and flair. The book combines the slow, highly personal style of an introspective piece with the incidental additions typical of a stream-of-consciousness novel. That the novel conveys emotion without descending into drivel is amazing; both genres are equally annoying when implemented alone. The success of this blended style is largely due to the narrator’s sarcasm and peculiarities. The grace with which the author effortlessly preserves and boxes each emotion and idiosyncrasy, like a fragile insect, is incredibly haunting.
One of the key peculiarities of Christopher is his dismissal of any activity as a test that can be crammed for through observation and books. Just as Christopher blends into school by copying the mannerisms of his classmates, he measures himself against his vocation by reading Sherlock Holmes. The absurdities of life are quantitatively reduced to odd rules. Once, Christopher remarked, “I recall observing a mannerism ... of tucking the right hand into a waistcoat pocket and moving the left shoulder up and down in a kind of shrug to underline certain of their remarks.” His odd ambivalence is supported by the writing, which transitions so smoothly between setting, time, and characters that the reader is lulled into sharing Christopher’s disregard for life.
It is ultimately because the book spends so much time in this state of nuanced apathy that the ending comes as a such shock. Accustomed to the passage of time in ambiguous uncertainty, the blunt sledgehammer of truths that rain down at the end are jarring. It is ironic that the same excess of facts designed to reveal the truth simultaneously obscures it, and the most revealing things are the undefinable, unpredictable emotions of a child.