This book is a page-tuner. I finished this book in several days. What can I say, I just admire Ishiguro as an author and want to read everything he ever wrote. The plot generated quite a lot of tensions and suspense keeping me going. At certain point I was even wondering whether this whole thing was really a bad dream of the narrator….and then came the big expose in the end… When We Were Orphans is often considered a lightweight of Ishiguro books. Even the author himself declared that “it’s not my best book”. Nonetheless I regard it an important piece in his continuous exploration of unreliable narrator and voluntarily altered memory, which were used to reflect the narrator’s gradual conceal/reveal of details, and eventual (often fateful) failure in denial.
Supposedly, these tools should fit the story perfectly in this book, where a British detective attempted to solve the case of his parents disappearance in Shanghai a couple of decades ago while contemplating the events before and after. Gradual revealing of the facts and truth told through multiple perspectives are pervasive in detective stories. But for some reason the tone was off and awkward, especially the first half. As Guardian put it sharply, “Christopher Banks tells us that he is a ‘society detective’, but he sounds exactly like a policeman. Or, to be unkind, like a butler.”
While the Guardian review pinpointed accurately the problem with the tone (or the way the story was told), however, it missed in simply attributing it to the mismatch in the “roles”. In The Remains of the Day and The Artist of the Floating World, the tone works well not because of the role of an butler or an artist inherently fitting that apologetic and non-straightforward tone. Rather it was because the narrators were partially responsible for their tragedy and regret hence the dodging and denial a reasonable human reaction. And one would be sympathetic to this active fact-dodging once the tragedy revealed.
However, in When We Were Orphans, it is hard to argue that Banks was responsible for the tragedy. Hence should a similar non-straightforward tone be used, it would have been used passively rather than actively by the narrator as a result of the trauma or shock. There was nothing to be gained by manipulating the facts from Christopher Banks point of view, and it only makes the tone awkward for the readers.
Another observation is that the book has a three part narrative on women. Mother – lover – daughter, all of which were incomplete and tragic in one way or another. No review I read so far has discussed about it. But I feel Ishiguro did have a feminist agenda here – women were often disproportionately victimized in wars and the so-called historical transitions. This should be an important takeaway from the book not overlooked.