Summary and book reviews of When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans

by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2000, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2001, 352 pages

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Book Summary

An English boy born in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances. Sent to live in England, he grows up to become a renowned detective and, 20 years later, returns to Shanghai, where the Sino-Japanese War is raging.

The maze of human memory--the ways in which we accommodate and alter it, deceive and deliver ourselves with it--is territory that Kazuo Ishiguro has made his own. In his previous novels, he has explored this inner world and its manifestations in the lives of his characters with rare inventiveness and subtlety, shrewd humor and insight. In When We Were Orphans, his first novel in five years, he returns to this terrain in a brilliantly realized story that illuminates the power of one's past to determine the present.

Christopher Banks, an English boy born in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances. Sent to live in England, he grows up to become a renowned detective and, more than twenty years later, returns to Shanghai, where the Sino-Japanese War is raging, to solve the mystery of the disappearances.

The story is straightforward. Its telling is remarkable. Christopher's voice is controlled, detailed, and detached, its precision unsurprising in someone who has devoted his life to the examination of details and the rigors of objective thought. But within the layers of his narrative is slowly revealed what he can't, or won't, see: that his memory, despite what he wants to believe, is not unaffected by his childhood tragedies; that his powers of perception, the heralded clarity of his vision, can be blinding as well as enlightening; and that the simplest desires--a child's for his parents, a man's for understanding--may give rise to the most complicated truths.

A masterful combination of narrative control and soaring imagination, When We Were Orphans is Kazuo Ishiguro at his best.

Chapter One

It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt's wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington. I remember it now as the most wonderful of summers. After years of being surrounded by fellows, both at school and at Cambridge, I took great pleasure in my own company. I enjoyed the London parks, the quiet of the Reading Room at the British Museum; I indulged entire afternoons strolling the streets of Kensington, outlining to myself plans for my future, pausing once in a while to admire how here in England, even in the midst of such a great city, creepers and ivy are to be found clinging to the fronts of fine houses.

It was on one such leisurely walk that I encountered quite by chance an old schoolfriend, James Osbourne, and discovering him to be a neighbour, suggested he call on me when he was next passing. Although at that ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The function of memory is already a major component of the narrative in the opening pages of the book: Christopher is writing in 1930 about something that happened in 1923, and within that memory are the memories of even earlier events. And throughout the book, what Christopher does and does not recollect, is of great concern for him. How has Ishiguro used the vagaries of Christopher's memory to shape the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions?

  2. What role does Sarah Hemmings play in this early part of the novel as it relates to Christopher? What is behind her urgent need to meet Sir Cecil? What is it about Sarah that moves Christopher to tell her about his past when he had told no one else in ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Despite some contrived events and a tendency to rework the characterizations and themes of his previous books, Ishiguro's latest novel triumphs.

Library Journal

Atmosphere, historical detail, suspense Ishiguro's new book has it all, and if the parts finally don't add up, the author should still be credited with providing another great read. He should also be credited with originality, for though he investigates the polarities of insider-outsider, English-foreign, as he has done before (e.g., The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled), he is hardly writing the same book again and again. Here, Christopher Banks is an Englishman born in early 20th-century Shanghai whose parents disappear mysteriously when he is nine. He is escorted to England, grows up to be a famed detective, and returns to Shanghai, convinced that his parents are still alive and that he must find them. The reader is less convinced that Banks is a real detective and wonder how he can entertain the romantic notion that his parents have been held hostage in Shanghai for decades, but the truth behind their disappearance comes as a satisfying surprise. And the writing is just wonderful, at once rich and taut. More writers should take style lessons from Ishiguro.

Kirkus

An eerie, oddly beautiful tale from the internationally acclaimed author revolves around an enigmatic ordeal essentially similar to that undergone in Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (1995). ..... Elegiac, meditative, ultimately emotionally devastating, and the purest expression yet of the author's obsessive theme the buried life unearthed by its contingent interconnection with the passions, secrets, and priorities of unignorable other lives.

The Times Literary Supplement - Joyce Carol Oates -

[W]ill linger in the mind as an often fascinating, imaginative work of surpassing intelligence and taste.

Reader Reviews

Jason Williams

This is the best book ever. I think those words say it all. If I had to read again I would definetely read, without a doubt. It's worth reading it.

Janette Ireland

no depth
The style of sentence construction looked like Ishiguro was trying to put himself into the 1930's, what he was doing was a bad imitation. It was as if the whole book was written by the child character, who never grew up in terms of maturity of ...   Read More

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