Tuesday, July 05, 2005

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

I listened to this book on CD while painting our kitchen, the last 5 hours with only a break for lunch. I had to keep listening.

Christopher Banks is one of London’s most noted private detectives, fulfilling one of his childhood dreams. His other dream is that he can use his skills of detection to find his parents who disappeared in Shanghai when he was only nine.

When We Were Orphans is a novel set in the 1920s and 1930s by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the Booker Prize winner The Remains of the Day. Christopher Banks is the child of an employee of a British mercantile firm operating out of Shanghai, where he was born. His family lives in the international compound and his best friend and playmate is Akira Yamashita, the Japanese boy next door. When his mother discovers that his father’s company, like many prominent European firms in the Orient, is secretly importing opium, she begins a campaign to stop the trade. Christopher’s father then disappears and his mother is kidnapped weeks later. Family friends send Christopher back to England to live with his aunt while Shanghai’s best detectives work on the case.

Ishiguro tells the story through a series of lengthy journal entries written by Christopher at important points in his quest. While still in England he solves several mysterious murder cases and researches his parents’ disappearance from the British Library. After he receives a correspondence triggering a memory of the Shanghai warlord Wang Ku visiting his mother, he returns to the city, where the British community welcomes him as a celebrity. He looks for his parents, for his lost friend Akira, and for the intentions of Sarah Hemmings, a socialite who has come to the city with her aged husband. He leaves the safety of the international compound, venturing into the battle zone between Chinese and Japanese forces, where he sees what most Europeans never see.

When We Were Orphans reminds me of The Quiet American by Graham Greene in that Christopher represents the English attitude toward its colonies much as Alden Pyle represented American commercial attitudes in French-ruled Vietnam in Greene’s novel. In both books the history of nations is told through the actions of characters. Both belong in all public libraries.

Ishiguro, Christopher. When We Were Orphans. New York: Knopf, 2000. ISBN 0375410546

Audiobook: Books on Tape, 2000. ISBN 0060824891

No comments: