Christopher Banks, a retired detective now staying in London, is reminiscing about his past, his exploits as a successful sleuth, his life and that very important case involving the sudden disappearance of his parents in 20th century Shanghai. When We Were Orphans was my third Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World being the other two.
Unlike the other two, When We Were Orphans has a more tangible storyline, but what it deals with within the four walls of the story delivers on the expectation I have come to have of an Ishiguro novel – themes like nationalism, filial love, how we remember things from the past and elliptical prose, if sometimes a little workmanlike.
The novel is unlike an average detective book – it is about a detective without being a detective story where the solution at the end of the investigation is not as important (or maybe just as important) as the things the investigator discovers and reveals to the reader in the course of investigation – about society, history and other things of common human interest. Christopher Banks recalling his exploits as a detective just is a small tributary flowing into a larger narrative he is narrating; the purpose of the recollections is only to the reader that he is a well-known detective and not how he solved his cases, the chief concern of any detective story.
Finally when he embarks on the most important case of his life, finding out the reason behind his parents’ sudden disappearance so many years ago, after wading through a Shanghai, currently smarting under a Japanese attack, which has changed beyond recognition since when he left it for England as a child – Christopher Banks finally encounters a truth about his parents contrary to what he was deceived into believing as a child by them.
The truth devastates him and also leaves the reader surprised. When it comes to the reader, though, it’s not the truth alone which is surprising, completely different from what the novel prepares the reader for, but also the fact that it is too ham-handed an ending for an Ishiguro novel.
Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World end on a very gentle and misty note. Upon later reflection, I gave the ending, We Were Not Orphans, a benefit of doubt considering that, unlike the earlier two Ishiguro novels I had read, this one is a detective story where the reader is kept waiting for the truth until it arrives at the very end of the novel, making a more well defined, maybe a little sensational ending a necessity.
I read Pale View of Hills at least four years before Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. Although I liked the book, I found it too indescribable, but it created an interest in Ishiguro. I researched on him and came to know about his other books. Through his interviews on Youtube, I came to know his views on genre which is made so much of in publishing. He says the idea of genre does not have any literary relevance; slotting books into different categories only helps market them, nothing else. When We Were Orphans is a work in that tradition: a genre bender.
I felt vindicated when he won the Nobel for literature. By the way, this was my second novel I read as an ebook on Kindle.