Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) will probably be my last read of his novels unless something comes along that looks irresistible. I enjoyed Remains of the Day when I read it, and Never Let Me Go is a great dystopia, but Orphans makes the third book of his in a row where I have been left underwhelmed and frequently bored.
The novel follows the narrator, Christopher Banks, as he remembers his past growing up in Shanghai before World War I and simultaneously rises to prominence as a detective in England between the wars. He decides to go back to Shanghai to investigate the circumstances of his parents’ disappearance years earlier, an event that sent him back to England to grow up. He is motivated by his own sense, and apparently that of others, that if he returns to Shanghai he will break open the case and, with it, solve the underlying evils leading up to World War II.
Despite the differences in location and social status, the novel retreads thematic terrain from Remains: Ishiguro again points out a general naïveté in the way the narrator and those around him think about world politics. They see the impending war as the rise of an evil that can be easily sorted out by cold investigative rationalism and good diplomacy by the right people, but they really have no idea what they are in for.
The problem with the novel isn’t that Ishiguro revisits these themes (many writers successfully go back to the same issues again and again and keep finding something fresh)—it is that he does it with such a heavy hand. Part of this is a problem of narrator reliability. Ishiguro pushes Banks’s cluelessness a little too far to be believable, and likewise the unreliability of the narrator is performed in too obvious ways. The narrator is meant to be simultaneously over-confident and completely bewildered, admitting his mistakes in memory too easily and performatively to fit his personality. Each section is dated, and the narrator seems to be talking or perhaps writing diary-like entries, but any potential audience, even himself in a diary, would prompt a completely different narrative style. In some first-person narratives this would work—a narrator can sometimes speak in an unrealistic manner but not come across as false—but it doesn’t work here, perhaps because the chapter labels emphasize time and place so much and thus set an expectation for contextual narration rather than something more inventive.
There are other problems: the biggest is an unnecessary failed romance plot that bloats the novel. The ending picks up the pace some, although the resolution is both bizarre and so obviously intended to instill a moral that it too is a bit difficult to endure.
So that is enough Ishiguro for me. On to other writers, hopefully doing more exciting things.