“… I’ve worked hard over the years to check the spread of crime and evil wherever it has manifested itself.”
Christopher Banks, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, has dedicated his life to detective work but behind his successes lies one unsolved mystery: the disappearance of his parents when he was a small boy living in the International Settlement in Shanghai.
Moving between England and China in the inter-war period, the book, encompassing the turbulence and political anxieties of the time and the crumbling certainties of a Britain deeply involved in the opium trade in the East, centres on Banks’s idealistic need to make sense of the world through the small victories of detection and his need to understand finally what happened to his mother and father.
This new novel, however, is the deliberate antithesis of the classic English detective story–the hermetic country-house worlds of Agatha Christie, the classic “locked room” puzzles in which order and sanity is restored at the story’s end.
Ishiguro mimics the functional style and clipped speech patterns of the genre, ironising its reliance on melodrama and stereotype, while developing a narrative of subtlety, great emotional depth, and political and cultural acuity: what we get is a negative image of classic detective fiction, in which the solved crimes are mentioned in passing and the real mystery is played out in the psychology of the detective himself.
The act of detection, Ishiguro suggests, is one we all perform on our own past, struggling to marshal clues and evidence whilst trying to construct the story of ourselves; the one mystery Banks seems unable to solve is his own.
If Ishiguro’s concerns as a writer remain broadly the same as in previous novels such as his Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day—the complexities, instability and elusiveness of memory, dramatised through a first-person narrator—this new book shows how flexible and powerful the form has become for him. Banks’ quest is both deeply personal and resonantly emblematic of us all:
…for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.
When We Were Orphans is an astonishing book, rich and profound on many levels, and one that will live clearly in the memory of all who read it. —Burhan Tufail