When We Were Orphans (audio)

Christopher Banks is a great detective, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about him is hardly a typical detective story. A huge chunk of the book is Christopher’s reminiscences about his childhood in the International Settlement in Shanghai. There, he and his best friend, a Japanese boy named Akira, played together, had friendly disputes, and scared each other with stories of the wicked deeds of Akira’s family’s servant, Ling Tien. All this comes to an end when Christopher’s parents both disappear under mysterious circumstances, possibly related to the opium trade, and Christopher is sent to England to live with his aunt. Years later, in the late 1930s, after he has established himself in his illustrious detective career, he returns to Shanghai, hoping to find his parents and maybe even reunite with his friend.

This is the third book that I’ve read by Ishiguro (the others being The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go), and in all three cases, I’ve found that I can’t quite trust the narrator. In all three books, Ishiguro immerses readers in one person’s point of view, and so we are bound by that person’s blind spots and self-deceptions. In Christopher’s case, those boundaries are not significant. Sometimes, in fact, he’s maddeningly obtuse, but what isn’t clear is whether he’s just a supreme knucklehead or whether he’s deliberately trying to turn himself into a greater man than he is (or both).

For most of the book, his narration seems straightforward enough. Christopher tells of his childhood, his school days, and his early adult years in London. We learn that he has become a famous detective, we see glimpses of a socialite named Sarah Hemmings, and we meet an orphan named Jennifer whom he has taken in. A good half of the novel comprises Christopher’s story of these years. There’s no particular reason to mistrust his account, but a coldness in the narrative style makes it feel less than honest. A few of his stories about Akira raised my eyebrows, making me wonder how Akira would describe the same events. I had the same reaction to Kathy’s depiction of Ruth in Never Let Me Go, and in both cases I’m not entirely sure whether the reader is supposed to be skeptical. I also wondered about his great career, which we hardly ever see and only know about because he tells us and because a few others mention it.

My skepticism only grew when Christopher went back to Shanghai. Here, his obtuseness on multiple occasions made me wonder how he could find his way to the corner after asking someone for directions, much less how he could get evidence from a suspect. He’s also ridiculously open to suggestion. When a Chinese official begins making plans for a celebration of his parents’ release from kidnapping, Christopher goes right along with the assumption that he will find them easily. When he’s offered a chance to run away with a beautiful woman, he packs his bag. And the evidence he uses to finally go after his parents is appallingly flimsy and his methods completely lackadaisical. I laughed out loud at his ridiculousness—and even more at his confidence. I have to believe this was deliberate on Ishiguro’s part.

The final third or so of the book, when Christopher finally makes his move toward finding his parents and then eventually learns the truth, is truly gripping. I didn’t care much about Christopher, but I wanted to know what he would find and to see how he would react. The resolution to the mystery was not something I saw coming, but it didn’t surprise me. The details of Christopher’s parents fate are really beside the point. The thing that matters is Christopher’s reaction, and his reaction shows that even his “daring act of heroism” was at its core all about him and his needs—for glory, for recognition, for forgiveness. I haven’t made up my mind on Christopher’s reliability, but I know where I stand on his likability. I don’t like him. He’s conceited, self-absorbed, and not very bright. He has no redeeming qualities that I can find, outside of being a character in a rather good book.

I listened to this on audio, read by John Lee. Ishiguro’s simple, clean prose seems to lend itself nicely to audio. (I also enjoyed the audio production of Never Let Me Go, which I listened to after reading it in print.) I’m always happy to find a good author I can listen to in the car.

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10 Responses to When We Were Orphans (audio)

  1. Sigrun says:

    I find it interesting when you say: I can’t quite trust the narrator, because I remember the book as being, what shall I say – labyrinthic? And this loss of overview might just well have to do with the unreliability of Christopher.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I think getting only inside Christopher’s head keeps us from ever getting the whole picture, and his unreliability only makes matters worse.

  2. Alex says:

    I’ve also very recently listen to (and posted about) this audiobook. I also made the point about the narrator and how surreal and almost dream-like Christopher’s experiences are in Shanghai, but felt the real fate of his parents give a nice pragmatism to the whole strange narrative.

    • Teresa says:

      I like how you describe it as dream-like. He definitely seemed to float from one thing to another, just like in a dream, at least until he decided to take an obviously misguided action.

  3. In almost every book written in 1st person I can’t trust the narrator because is view of the events is prejudice by his back story, but I still enjoy 1st person narrative because it’s very similar to real life.

    • Teresa says:

      I feel the same. Even when the narrator seems clear-headed and honest, I’m often on the alert for what’s not being said. It makes the book more interesting.

  4. I just LOVE what Ishiguro does with unreliable narrator, and this novel was no exception. And that late scene in the labyrinth of Shanghai hovels!

    I definitely agree that Christopher’s unsympathetic nature, self-aggrandizement and obtuseness are deliberate on Ishiguro’s part, and I saw them as a comment on the blundering actions of colonizers (in this case, the obliviousness of the British who insist on having a cocktail party while the bombs of the Sino-Japanese War fall right outside their windows, seemed to parallel nicely Christopher’s more personal self-involvement). There’s some nice tie-ins to common paradigms of racism, like when Christopher gets back to Shanghai and believes he’s seeing Akira around every corner – is this just because all Asian people look the same to him? Or is it because he conceptualizes himself as belonging to “a novel,” where all the loose ends will tie up neatly?

    Love Ishiguro.

    • Teresa says:

      It took me quite a while to decide how deliberate the unreliability was because I felt the same way about Never Let Me Go, and no other reviews that I’ve seen questioned Kathy’s reliability. So I thought there might just be something in Ishiguro’s style that made me extra suspicious of his narrators. But it became obvious once we got to Shanghai and Christopher’s actions went so far off the rails.

      I hadn’t really thought about that connection to the colonizers, but I think you’re onto something. Their view of events is equally distorted and self-absorbed. And the whole business with “Akira” during the rescue–so many possibilities there. It seems to me that Christopher sees everyone as existing only in relation to him. Akira never left Shanghai, his parents are in the same place, Sarah still pines for him. Which ties in nicely with England’s view of itself at the time as the center of the universe.

  5. Steph says:

    I’ve never really thought about Ishiguro as someone who uses the unreliable narrator, but now that you bring it up, I think you’re right. I think I just get so engrossed in his writing that I just don’t stop to question whether what I’m reading is trustworthy or not. I’ve only read Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, but I hope to work my way through the rest of his works at some point! I do have this novel on the shelf, though I’m not sure if it will be the next work of his that I tackle (I’m thinking of A Pale View of the Hills…).

    • Teresa says:

      You know, I think one of the things that makes Ishiguro so good is that his books can be read purely for story, but there’s still something more under the surface. It wasn’t until my second reading of Never Let Me Go that I started to really question Kathy’s account (not that I think she was lying, but she was, perhaps unconsciously, tweaking the story to make herself look good).

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