When We Were Orphans

 Memories – layers and layers of them, unfolding like the delicate fronds of a rice paper fan – are at the core of this novel.  Memories and misconceptions about one’s history, family, and very existence are explored in exquisite detail in this novel by Kazuo Ishiguro as he follows Chistopher Banks, an English boy born and raised in the cultural melting pot which was Shanghai in the early 20th century.

Banks’ becomes an “orphan” at age nine when his parents mysteriously vanish.  As he grows up, he develops his own theories about their disappearance, theories derived from his own misperceptions and altered memories.  He becomes a renowned detective, determined to use his skills to return to Shanghai and find his mother and father.  When he does, more than 20 years later, he finds the countryside ravaged by war and is forced to admit that “many things weren’t as he had supposed.”

There is an elegant, graceful reserve to the writing in this book, a quality I somehow associate with Asian art and life.  It’s a heightened sense of control over language and emotion, a fierce attention to detail, a sense of power and precision.  The reader becomes something of a silent observer, watching the action as if sitting in the back row of the movie theater. 

But  beneath Banks’ precise language and hidden emotions lies a deep desire for the most primitive of human connections – that of a child to his parents.  And while it seems simple, he comes to find that even this elemental relationship is fraught with complexity.  His quest to make sense of his past is heartbreaking, painful, and riveting.

 

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Copyright 2000, by Alfred Knopf

335 pages

for The Japanese Literature Challenge 4

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9 thoughts on “When We Were Orphans

  1. Becca, you’ve written such a wonderful, eloquent review! I LOVE this whole paragraph: “There is an elegant, graceful reserve to the writing in this book, a quality I somehow associate with Asian art and life. It’s a heightened sense of control over language and emotion, a fierce attention to detail, a sense of power and precision. The reader becomes something of a silent observer, watching the action as if sitting in the back row of the movie theater. ” That’s exactly how reading Japanese literature makes me feel.

    Also, the idea of a parent/child relationship is so incredibly complex. It’s something I’m still examining in my own life with my parents, and my son, and I’m 49! Quite possibly, it’s such a multi-faceted thing we’ll never have all the answers.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your review.

    • Thank you 🙂 My daughter in law is Asian, and she has so many of those same qualities about her.~the control, the reserve, the quiet grace and simplicity of movement.

      Indeed, parenthood is an ongoing journey. As members of the so-called “sandwich generation,” we’re dealing with it from both ends of the spectrum.

  2. I second what Bellezza said. Love that WHOLE paragraph you wrote! The “elegant, graceful reserve” and the “heightened sense of control over language and emotion” is Ishiguro’s talent, which is why I love him so much. I’ll be reading this book soon and glad to hear of the loveliness.

  3. Becca, this review is magnificent! I can only echo what Bellezza and claire have already written, and add that this book is going on my must-read list. Thank you.

  4. I’ve had this book on my shelves for years without getting around to it – thank you for this luminous review which makes me want to read it immediately!

  5. I have only read two of Ishiguro’s previous books and loved them both, so why I haven’t I gone through his entire output? Stupid! Thanks for pushing me to add this to my summer reading.

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