Christopher Banks has become the country’s most celebrated detective, his cases the talk of London society. Yet one unsolved crime has always haunted him: the mysterious disappearance of his parents, in old Shanghai, when he was a small boy. Moving between London and Shanghai of the interwar years, When We Were Orphans is a remarkable story of memory, intrigue and the need to return.
Occasionally brilliant, but somehow less satisfying than I would expect from an Ishiguro novel, When We Were Orphans explores familiar themes and characters but feels perhaps shackled by the weight of its own detective fiction baggage.
What I Liked
- Christopher Banks as a character
- Christopher’s childhood in the International Settlement in Shanghai
- The nightmarish return to Shanghai in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War
What Could Have Been Different
- Jennifer – I’m not sure what she added to the narrative…
- The conclusion and fate of Chrsitopher’s mother
Ishiguro, I believe, has stated in interview that he tends to write the same novel, refining it and developing it in different clothes, calling this his “dirty secret”:
My subject matter doesn’t vary so much from book to book. Just the surface does. The settings, etc. I tend to write the same book over and over, or at least, I take the same subject I took last time out and refine it, or do a slightly different take on it.Guardian Webchat 20th January 2015
In this book’s narrator, Christopher Banks, we do see echoes of Stevens and of the future in Kathy and Klara. Banks is mannered and poised in a way which is perhaps at odds with other people around him; his background – English but born in Shanghai – sets him out as alien and he is an observer more than a participant in society – in much the same way that Stevens’ role as a butler did, and Kathy’s role as donor or Klara’s as an Artificial Friend will.
And Banks is a private detective, a career that again sets him up as an observer, and which carries inevitable echoes of literary genre. It is hard not to see shades of Sherlock hanging over him as he investigates a troubling case and “had been examining this area for about twenty minutes – 1 was on my front, scrutinising with my magnifying glass one of the slabs that projected over the water” or when presented with a magnifying glass as a birthday gift. And this is deliberate and delicately done: as with his literary predecessors, Banks seems infallible in his various cases – the Mannering case or the Roger Parker case or the Studley Grange business – but we never really see his methods or his investigations. The focus is on Banks himself as character, receiving and entertaining visitors, attending parties – making the acquaintance of Sarah Hemmings, adopting a daughter, Jennifer, before packing her off to boarding school.
Only one case really interests the narrative: the mysterious disappearance of Banks’ parents within weeks of each other in Shanghai a decade or two earlier. Again, Ishiguro has his characters looking backwards and recounting events from the past, with questionable reliability. Banks is frequently at pains to correct: a school friend’s comment that he “had been such an odd bird at school” jars with his own memory “that I blended perfectly into English school life”; or when Colonel Chamberlain was escorting him from Shanghai back to England he recalled that Banks was ” repeated insinuation was that I had gone about the ship “withdrawn and moody, liable to burst into tears at the slightest thing” whereas Banks insists that
according to my own, quite clear memory, I adapted very ably to the changed realities of my circumstances. I remember very well that, far from being miserable on that voyage, I was positively excited about life aboard the ship, as well as by the prospect of the future that lay before me.
What we learn of his childhood is a somewhat weak father and a strong and impressive mother campaigning against the opium trade in China; a friendship with Akira, the Japanese child living next door to Banks in the International Settlement. We learn of their games and their roleplays and, when Banks’ father goes missing we see how they develop a detective game in which they imagine themselves finding and rescuing him, always from a degree of comfort:
it was always Akira who took great care to ensure my father’s comfort and dignity in all our dramas. The kidnappers always addressed him as though they were his servants, bringing him food, drink and newspapers as soon as he requested them. Accordingly the characters of the kidnappers softened…
It is in these moments that we see the power of narrative: Banks recognises that others “had an investment in giving himself the role of an heroic guardian” but doesn’t apply the same insight to his own self-mythologising tendency. Of course as a young boy who has suffered a trauma, his child’s mind finds comfort in imagining his father’s comfort; and his adult mind finds comfort in the narrative of himself as excited and well settled and fitting in.
And in many ways, Christopher Banks seemed stuck in those roleplays, playing detective in an increasingly fantastical and unconvincing childish quest. When he returns to Shanghai to search for them, somehow still believing that they were alive and still being held captive twenty years later, we see that he is still trapped in the deluded mindset of the childhood fiction.
And the portion of the novel around his return are wonderfully surreal and increasingly grotesque: hotel guests sipping champagne and listening to the orchestra as the Japanese fire over their heads into Shanghai; Grayson and his absurd celebration ceremony for the recovery of Banks’ parents; Sarah’s plight with her new husband Sir Cecil; and the nightmarish flight through the slums. There was something of the atmosphere of The Unconsoled here, something uncanny and Kafkaesque which was deeply unsettling to read.
Despite what seems to be the mounting improbability of the task, the question remains for the reader – will Banks find his parents and, perhaps more importantly, what would that mean for Banks?
So the question is, considering all that is praiseworthy about the novel, why did I find it less than satisfying? I think the answer lies in the way that Ishiguro responds to that final question. Without wanting to spoil any endings, I didn’t feel that the revelations we were given were either revelatory enough or that they led to a resolution of anything. They were perhaps no more reliable an account of what had happened to Banks’ parents than Banks’ own memories of childhood.