Kazuo Ishiguro’s “When We Were Orphans” – a Disappointment

It happens every now and then.  You start a book, and it draws you right in.  You are intrigued by the characters, the setting, the plot line(s), and the writing.  You sit back, relax, and enjoy, and you look forward to the remainder of the book.

And then it happens, in this case over 2/3 through the book.  It falls apart.  The characters become caricatures, the plot lines lose all credibility, the rhythm of the writing dissipates.  You don’t know if you should finish it, or just put it back on the shelf.  What a disappointment.

Christopher (a/k/a Puffin) Banks is born in the International Settlement of Shanghai around the turn of the century, the son of an employee of a company which made a lot of money importing opium into China and a mother who is an anti-opium activist.  His best friend is Akira, a young Japanese boy who lives next door.  Sadly, he is “orphaned” when his parents, one by one, disappear, and he is sent to his aunt in England.

He grows up, goes to the university and fulfills his lifelong ambition to become a private investigator, and a successful and well known one at that.  He is personally a little awkward socially, but his fame overcomes this and he develops a strange, extended but not deep relationship with an interesting woman who is portrayed as a social climber, who “wants it all”.  She marries a man much her senior and they resettle in Shanghai, where her husband embarks on some unsuccessful mission to preserve the peace, as the city withstands the beginnings of the Japanese invasion of the early 1940s.  She convinces Christopher to come to Shanghai as well, and he does for the first time since he left.  He meets old friends, gets the lay of the land, and then decides that his parents have been kidnapped so many years before and have been hidden since then in house he is determined to locate and visit.

What?  How could he believe his parents have been held prisoner for over 20 years in the same house?  And when you follow the steps he takes on this fantasy-like journey, you keep asking yourself: “What?”  It sure lost me – how he located the house, how he by chance found Akira whom he hadn’t seen since childhood, how they got caught on the Japanese-Chinese battle front….none of this made any sense to me.  And the credibility of the first 200 pages, when I was intrigued by the characters, simply vanished.

Too bad.


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