When We Were Orphans – Kazuo Ishiguro

December 22, 2009 § 4 Comments


I think it would be no bad thing if boys like you all grew up with a bit of everything. We might treat each other a good deal better then. Be less of these wars for one thing.

Set mostly during the period sandwiched between the two world wars we have experienced, When We Were Orphans explores the life of Christopher Banks. His childhood in Shanghai, and his friendship with Akira, his Japanese neighbour, change when his parents disappear one after the other, leaving him to fend for himself.

It is from his determination to find his parents that drive Christopher to pursue the life of a detective in London. He slowly gains a name for himself, and soon after he decides to return to Shanghai to ‘tie up loose ends’ and locate his parents once again.

Along the way, Christopher meets with some influential characters, one of which is Sarah. They seem to be drawn to each other by some invisible force, possibly due to the fact that they are both orphans, and perhaps they feel a certain affinity for each other. Sarah remains a character that is rather difficult to grasp throughout the book.


Ishiguro being Ishiguro, I found the writing beautiful. I’m not sure if it’s his British background, or if it’s because the narrator himself (Christopher) is British (and from the 1930s no less!), but I found the language used in When We Were Orphans unmistakably British. (Note how I used the word British 3 times… I need to brush up on my vocabulary!) It was a little difficult to follow at first; for one, I’m not quite used to British accents, and two, I’ve just finished an Amy Tan book, and she’s American.

Having said that, once I got past the initial discomfort, the words started to flow quickly and smoothly. It’s the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Ishiguro. It felt effortless.

But I have to say, I didn’t like Christopher very much. His being a detective, and a renowned one at that, didn’t feel at all convincing, especially when he admits time and time again that he “should have picked up on something, but didn’t at that point in time”. He was also prone to be very unsure of his own recollections of what had previously happened, and describes them as being “hazy”. After a while, this started to irritate me quite a bit.

I would also have liked to see a little more of Jennifer in the whole scheme of things, Jennifer being an orphaned child whom Christopher adopts. I found her character intriguing and surprisingly mature, but was slightly let down when she wasn’t explored any more than that.

All in all though, I’d say the book was quite a good read. The story-telling was quite interesting, in that the present Christopher would remember a time when he met with someone else who triggered a memory of an even earlier time. There was quite a bit of popping in and out of many layers of the past, which just means you have to concentrate!


Rating: 3.5


§ 4 Responses to When We Were Orphans – Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Sakura says:

    I actually don’t remember much of the story except that there was a Chinese warlord who made an appearance at one point in the story (I may be completely wrong.) But I love Ishiguro’s prose and remember the sense of nostalgia he evokes. Maybe I need to go back and do a re-read. I still haven’t read his latest book ‘Nocturnes’ but I’ll have to save that for next year. Have you?

  • This was the first book by Ishiguro I read, and I did like it. I love his writing, and, thought Never Let Me Go was better.

  • mee says:

    Like cookiecrumbles, this was the first Ishiguro I read, and then Never Let Me Go (which I also thought was better)! I read it 2 years ago, so it’s a bit hazy, but I remember it got quite weird towards the end of the book. In my review the first thing I commented on was that it felt very English too:
    I gave it 3.5 stars too 🙂

  • su says:

    @ Sakura: There was a Chinese warlord at some point, and in fact played an important role in how the story ended.

    I have read Nocturnes actually, had posted my thoughts on it HERE. Absolutely loved it.

    @ anothercookie: Haven’t read Never Let Me Go yet. I also heard Remains of the Day is one of his best…

    @ mee: It did get quite weird for me as well. I wasn’t quite sure why Ishiguro decided to end the novel that way..

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