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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How childhood trauma shapes our view of life (and may detach us from reality)
I chose to read this novel based partly on the settings (China, London) and partly because I recognized the author's name as author of The Remains of the Day, which was adapted into an excellent movie.

I immediately fell in love with the excellent English prose.

Initially I also accepted the framework of the detective story (discussed by so many...
Published on 18 Oct 2012 by Thoughtful reader

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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, but frustrating.
Although I usually like Ishiguro, I found this book disappointing, lacking coherence, its purpose muddy. The first half of the book is suspenseful, tautly constructed, and realistically presented, as we learn of Christopher Banks's history and of the ironies of his parents' disappearance. Once he arrives in Shanghai, however, the book splits into two seemingly...
Published on 9 Oct 2003 by Mary Whipple


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A missed opportunity, 5 April 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Hardcover)
Fascinating subject matter, but a tedious, infuriatingly unsympathetic central character ruins what could have been a classic. The reader is left in the dark on much of the more interesting aspects of the plot, but over-indulged on the less interesting passages.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Didn't ring true, 15 July 2011
By 
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
This story just never really became believable to me. I never identified with any of the characters. I found the revelations about the character's mother towards the end unnecessarily tragic and melodramatic and as a result unbelievable. The fact that the main character hears these revelations and then is "too busy" to go back to China/ Hong kong for 20 years was totally unbeievable as well. Why can't any of the characters learn to talk to each other in his books, fine for 1 book, but as a theme it gets tedious.
"sorry love but I may have a lead on my parents, let me know where you are going, I love you and want to be with you" would have saved alot of angst.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing but ultimately disappointing, 11 July 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
This must be one of the oddest books I have read - and I have read a few strange ones!
Written in very formal english which I suspect would have been considered old fashioned even in the 1930s the book is narrated by the main character Christopher Banks so that we only get his own (possibly unreliable) point of view. The book holds you attention not least because it seems to fit no genre - this is no straightforward detective story - you are never quite sure where the author is taking you.
The early part of the book is well executed mixing Christopher's life as a detective,socialising on the fringes of London society in the 1930s with flashbacks to his childhood in Shanghai building up to his parents (separate) disappearances.
However, when he returns to Shanghai as an adult to find his parents the whole novel starts to fall apart. The events become increasingly incredible to the extent that they are almost laughable. Are we supposed to believe Christopher's account? Possibly not, but as it is the only one we have there is nothing to contrast it with. If the point is about our ability to delude ourselves then it doesn't take a 300 page novel to make it. The one dramatic turn of events borrows heavily from 'Great Expectations' - I wasn't sure if this was a homage to Dickens or not, there is certainly a Dickensian aspect to the novel not least the old fashioned language.
Two thirds of the way into this I was completly gripped, but by the end I was forcing myself to read the final pages as I had lost all interest in characters and plot.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A many-layered novel, which succeeds on all of them, 21 Sep 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Hardcover)
To understand this book, you may need to first read Ishiguro's earlier work, "The Unconsoled". Although "Orphans" looks on the surface like a straightforward detective novel, I think to believe this would be to misunderstand its purpose. The journey is the point, not the destination.
And what a journey, with so many themes - the experience of losing parents, a "given" romance which somehow never really takes off, a detective story, a devastating depiction of the effects of hand to hand combat during the fall of Shanhai.
I did not find the prose style overly "poetic" - on the contrary, I thought the narrative had great pace and moved the reader on from one page to another with increasing urgency.
As ever with Ishiguro, the book raises more questions than it answers. For example, why did Banks take guardianship of Jennifer, only to abandon her to go to Shanghai? What was the "final answer" to the worlds problems to which only Banks could have had the answer? Why was this linked to the fate of his parents?
A book which hangs on in the mind long after the reader has finished it, and definitely one of the year 2000's essential reads.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Unreconciled Detective Story, 27 Mar 2009
By 
Huck Flynn "huckleberry" (northern ireland) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
Ishiguro is undoubtedly a masterful prose writer and usually a very sharp painter of character. In Orphans the narrator Christopher Banks is a fascinating, if somewhat delusional hero, who frustratingly remains unresolved and enigmatic. Maybe that was the author's intention but compared to Stevens, the butler in the flawless masterpiece Remains of the Day, I found him an annoying, over analytical and inconsistent voice. The central theme of different kinds of orphanhood and exile permeate the story, with many of the characters being outsiders and aliens - the British imperial setting of the pre-War International Settlement in Shanghai central to Banks' feeling of rootlessness. I found fairly early on that I didn't like Banks and this is never a good sign. We hear he is a famous detective but have no evidence of his exploits. His thoughts and motives have an air of unreliability and his self awareness is called into question by the disparity between his opinions and his memories of the reactions of others to his conversation or actions. His memory is generally questionable and not to be trusted - many episodes and dialogues he recalls do not seem credible. In fact he is rather ludicrous in his relationships; the rivalry with childhood playmate Akira whom he seems either to idolise or sneer at, and his blatant but rather suppressed attraction to Sarah Hemmings mirrors Stevens the butler from the previous book. On the other hand he seems particularly avuncular, sensible and sympathetic with his adopted "niece" Jennifer and rather unexpectedly shows creditable humanity at other times. The solution of the search for his lost parents comes as a relief rather than a satisfying finale and I finished the book thinking that the entire plot was a red herring and I hadn't been told the interesting truths. Maybe that was also the author's intention - there are lots of clues that the famous detective "hero" fails to unravel but rather misleads the reader. Towards the end I was reminded of several other better books including Great Expectations or Farrell's Singapore Grip. A puzzling and unfulfilling book then, leaving this reader perplexed and more than a bit dissatisfied.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ishiguro, but not at his best., 3 Feb 2014
By 
Brian R. Martin (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
Kazuo Ishiguro has an enviable reputation, based on just a handful of books, including the hugely successful `The Remains of the Day', with sales of over a million copies in English alone, in addition to translations in numerous other languages. He has been praised for his subtle use of language and his ability to understand the psychology of people looking back in their past with longing, but also with regrets for past actions. Those features are present in this novel, but the framework in which they are displayed is far from satisfactory and the book has received very mixed reviews on this site.

The central character is Christopher Banks, who narrates the action in the first person, beginning in 1930 when he is about 30 years old and living in London. He starts by recalling his childhood in Shanghai, and his close friendship with a Japanese boy called Akira. Christopher's father worked for one of the big British trading companies, one of whose activities was the importation of heroin. Christopher's mother was strongly opposed to the trade, which she saw as immoral and debasing the native Chinese population, and this caused tension between the two parents. One day Christopher's father failed to appear at his office, and this was followed shortly afterwards by the disappearance of his wife. When no trace of them could be found, Christopher was sent back to England to be brought up by a distant aunt, where he succeeds in his childhood ambition of becoming a famous private detective. He also adopts a young girl, Jennifer, for reasons that are not fully explained.

The narrative then jumps several years to 1937 when Christopher decides to leave Jennifer in the care of a housekeeper and return to Shanghai to find his parents, who he is convinced are still alive and held in captivity. What has provoked this extraordinary belief is not revealed. He arrives in Shanghai just as the China-Japan war is hotting up, with Japanese forces shelling the Chinese quarter and engaging Chinese forces on the ground. The British community greets his arrival with exaggerated joy. Some even seem to believe that he has come to 'solve' the war and not just to find his parents. The plot then starts to become more unbelievable, when, without apparently a scrap of evidence, Christopher announces that he knows where his parents are being held (for over 30 years!) and sets off to find a house right in the middle of the fighting, leaving a female friend Sarah just as they were about to depart Shanghai together. This is an example of how Christopher has been wounded emotionally by being abandoned (as he sees it) by his parents and unable to sustain a close relationship.

During the struggle to find the right house, Christopher finds his old friend Akira, who is fighting in the Japanese army and has been badly wounded, a coincidence that defies all belief. The point of the reappearance of Akira is unclear, because shortly afterwards he is taken away by other Japanese soldiers never to reappear in the story. During this journey there are other instances where Christopher shows his emotional detachment from the suffering of others. Needless to say, he does not find his parents, but on his return to the International Settlement he does finally discover the very dark story behind their disappearance.

The final short section is narrated twenty years later in London and tells how Christopher did eventually find his mother in Hong Kong in her final years, but her ordeals have destroyed her mind and she has no knowledge of who he is. In this section Ishiguro shows us what a fine writer he can be when he invokes Christopher's inner feelings and his reflections on the past, but ultimately it is not enough, and the book is far below the quality of `The Remains of the Day'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poignant And Absorbing, 24 Oct 2012
By 
Keith M - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
This 2000 work by master storyteller Kazuo Ishiguro is another beautifully written tale, once again evoking a number of this novelist's trademark themes of memory, unrequited love, culture clash and nostalgia for childhood, predominantly set around the time of the conflict between China and Japan in the 1930s, and recalled frequently via flashback. The novel's main protagonist is Christopher Banks, who has been brought up by his parents during the early part of the 20th century in the (multi-nationally controlled) International Settlement area of Shanghai.

Told in flashback, Christopher's childhood escapades, which he undertakes alongside best friend, the Japanese-born Akira, are (for me) some of the most effective parts of When We Were Orphans, nicely evoking an aura of cultures clashing, and providing a poignant portrayal of the young boy's innocence in the face of the apparently dubious moral and business practices in which his parents are involved. Ishiguro is on less convincing ground as he attempts to shoehorn a (for him, more conventional) tale of Christopher pursuing a career of crime detection (having returned to London), and thence returning to Shanghai to investigate the mysterious disappearance (and assumed kidnapping) of his parents. As was achieved much more effectively in The Unconsoled, the latter half of When We Were Orphans appears to blur the boundary of reality and dreams, as the detective rather optimistically (given the time gap involved) attempts to track down his parents in war-torn Shanghai.

When We Were Orphans is, for me, therefore something of a mixed bag, but is at its most effective as Ishiguro evokes Christopher's inner feelings, particularly around his childhood memories, his latterly adopted daughter Jennifer and his spurned romance with socialite Sarah Hemmings. He has also constructed a superbly poignant ending for the novel, which is reminiscent of his masterpiece, The Remains Of The Day.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A strange but compelling love story, 4 July 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Hardcover)
Once again the author has created a beautifully crafted fictional world which is set between the wars in fashionable London and Shanghai. Using the punctillious English prose that is now his trademark, Ishiguro describes the quest of the deluded young detective as he returns to China, ostensibly to solve the mystery of his missing parents but also to save the world from violent destruction. Through his reflections, the reader is given profound insight into the mind of the child and the sense that for some, childhood never ends.
My disappointment stems from the book's apparent loss of direction in the later stages and the feeling that the author simply did not know how to draw these matters to an appropriate conclusion. Nevertheless, one was enriched by the experience.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars intelligent, literary and touching, 1 Oct 2001
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
I spent some time like other reviewers of this book, being slightly bemused by the author's intentions. Whilst the detective genre was clearly intended, it was also obviously being subverted. Clues were given as to the themes the author wished to highlight. Memory clearly, and the difficulties of making an alliance between memory and perception, particularly from the child's point of view. It was a facinating novel if read with this in mind. The narrator's point of view late in the novel when in war torn Shanghi seemed disjointed, surreal and at times divorced from reality, but just right for a person driven through trauma to make sence of a world which is itself in trauma.
This is an exceptional book, but one which requires a little thought from the reader to enjoy.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The flaws of memory, 12 Sep 2014
I love this book; it is just wonderful. The story relates the history of Christopher Banks, celebrated detective during the 30s. His life seems to have been based on a Conan Doyle novel and it isn't long before what we have here is a classic Ishiguro unreliable narrator. He is a man who is very much still living in the childhood he recalls from his early infancy in Shanghai with his parents and his best friend Akira living next door. It's a story about memory (with all its flaws) as well as a story about Empire. It also relies heavily on literary traditions - the detective story genre, in addition to harking back to the unlikely fictions of an earlier age. It is a wonderfully satisfying story - can't recommend this one enough for Ishiguro fans.
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When We Were Orphans
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (Paperback - 5 Mar 2001)
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