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WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS by Kazuo Ishiguro Kirkus Star

WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Pub Date: Sept. 21st, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-41054-6
Publisher: Knopf

An eerie, oddly beautiful tale from the internationally acclaimed author revolves around an enigmatic ordeal essentially similar to that undergone in Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995).

This narrator, Christopher Banks, is a prominent English detective whose ratiocinative skills are severely tested by mysteries lodged in his own haunted past. Born in Shanghai, where his father was employed in the early 1900s by a powerful global trading company, Christopher spent most of his first decade sheltered in that otherwise turbulent city’s secure International Settlement, only dimly aware of his mother’s outspoken criticism of the ruinous opium trade (in which her husband’s employer was heavily invested): a courageous stance that presumably led to the separate “disappearances” of both Banks parents, and their son’s return to live with relatives in England. Twenty-some years later (in 1937), the eminent detective, now the beneficiary of a family legacy and the adoptive father of an(other) orphan, returns to Shanghai determined to rediscover the personal history taken from him long ago. But China is now imperiled by an increasingly violent Japanese military presence; old acquaintances assume inexplicably “foreign” shapes; every step taken toward recapturing his past confirms the indigenous axiom that “our childhood becomes like a foreign land once we have grown.” The disturbing climax, set in an unsettled urban hell far from the placid environs of the International Settlement, leads to a bitterly ironic revelation of what was sacrificed in order that Christopher Banks might live, and the chastened realization that he is one of those (unconsoled?) “whose fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents.”

Elegiac, meditative, ultimately emotionally devastating, and the purest expression yet of the author’s obsessive theme: the buried life unearthed by its contingent interconnection with the passions, secrets, and priorities of unignorable other lives.