In a Charlie Rose interview back in 2000 when the book was published, Ishiguro’s refers to ‘a child’s way of viewing the world that is frozen in time’. This phrase best summarizes When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro’s fifth novel that was published 5 years after his Booker winner Remains of the Day.

The year is 1930. Christopher Banks, the book’s main character and narrator, is a detective in London, and a highly regarded one if we are to believe his version. Despite his evident success at solving important cases that have been the source of his renown, there is one unsolved case that is always at the back of his mind until he takes it up – that of the disappearance of his parents when he is about 9 during the time they had been living in Shanghai. Banks is packed off to London after his parents’ disappearance, and here he is cared for by his aunt. While he does not state so, one is inclined to believe that this underlying desire to resolve the mystery of his parents disappearance is what leads him to take up a career as a detective. Through the course of the narrative, we are given a version of the world as Banks views it. We are introduced to his closest childhood friend, Akira, whose family lives in the neighboring house and their exploits as kids. We find out that his father worked for a British company that imports opium into China, while his mother is opposed to the wide-spread opium addiction that her husband’s line of work has brought to the region. Knowing what he tells us, we form an opinion of what may have happened to his parents – one that we hope Banks sees as well. We must remember though, that what we are told is entirely made of Banks’ view, drawn from his own memories. Ishiguro elaborates on this style in this interview:

I wanted to actually have the world of the book distorted, adopting the logic of the narrator. In paintings you often see that. Expressionist art, or whatever, where everything is distorted to reflect the emotion of the artist who is looking at the world. It’s kind of like that. The whole world portrayed in that book starts to tilt and bend in an attempt to orchestrate an alternative kind of logic.

To think of the book as simply a detective story is to overlook Ishiguro’s fine writing style that matches the polite prose of the early part of the 20th century with the clarity of modern expression, much like his earlier work, Remains of the Day, that is set around the same time period. In fact the book hardly gets into the details of any detective cases, they are merely alluded to. In the Charlie Rose interview mentioned earlier, Ishiguro talks about how he had to throw away about 160 pages in the middle of his book that was written up as a detective story within the main narrative, because he felt that detective fiction was not his forte. Instead, what we see in When We Were Orphans is a certain commentary on childhood where everyone conspires to create a fantastical world of goodness, one that is shattered at some point in one’s life, and then one sees the world for what it really is. Ishiguro’s protoganist in the book, despite being perfectly comfortable in the social world of adults, is frozen in a certain memory of his childhood and is yet to come to terms with reality. Ishiguro refers to this motif in this interview, where he says:

Universally we all want to conspire to make children believe that the world is a kind of place it in’t actually is…
As adult we have some nostalgic memory of the time we lived in that little childhood bubble and we believed that the world was this sweet little place with fluffy toys and smiling adults

Certain reviews of the book have commented on the slow narrative in the first part of the book. It is this part that I found to be more engrossoing – thanks to Ishiguro’s wonderful flow of words spoken through his narrator. Ishiguro’s characters, both in this book, and in The Remains … represent a certain reality of what we see around us and perhaps even experience, and yet they themselves tend to be oblivious of it, sticking instead, rather rigidly to their beliefs. To read Ishiguro is to befriend his characters, to hear them speak, to reflect on what they tell us, and to understand a bit regarding life that they come to realize only too late.

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