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