Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Trevor's Review of Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans

Though while reading this book I liked it, in the end I didn't really connect with the story and its themes as much as I expect from a Booker shortlisted book. I'm not sure how well it would have kept my interest had I not been reading it during my commute. And that was disappointing because I respect Ishiguro a great deal, and this didn't seem up to his standards or the Booker's short list standards.

That said, Ishiguro's writing is still excellent. The way the plot unfolds is still subtle and controlled. In this book, Christopher Banks, a London detective, looks back on his childhood in Shanghai. Unfortunately, his parents disappear and he is left an orphan. Now some twenty years later, he is trying to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearance. He is naive in his approach to the mystery, almost unable to comprehend the complexities surrounding their disappearance. His naivety, which is crushed into complete disorienting disillusionment, perfectly (I felt) paralleled the naivety of the world as it approached the Sino-Japanese War, and ultimately to World War II. The diplomats all feel they can go to China and quickly settle its dispute with Japan. In this way, Ishiguro relooks at a theme in The Remains of the Day, as the incompetent nobles seek to run world affairs they cannot understand. They feel that their skill could avert something that no one had control over, something building up for years.

There is much more to this book than I'm letting on. The unreliability of memory, another of Ishiguro's great themes, is as present here as in any other of his books. Also, Banks relationship with his neice and with his childhood friend are very interesting--they just don't hold the story for me.

In a light read it would be easy to think Ishiguro was writing a sophmoric book with unbelievably ignorant characters, but the ending shows that he was in control the whole time. He just choses to reveal what he's up to little by little. His subtlety could be missed. However, his writing skill wasn't enough for me in this one.
3 stars out of 5.

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