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6 of 6 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...
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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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6 of 6 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), 18 Oct 2012
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
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 other reviewers). However I grew increasingly uneasy with two things: the occasional assertions of links between Banks' expertise and and his role in saving the world, and the relentless cheeriness of Banks, despite all pain and suffering.

I began to suspect that Banks was not living in the real world as his beliefs, opinions and emotions became increasingly out of sync with what the reader might expect. A growing certainty evolved that Banks' childhood trauma of losing both parents and being deprived of his childhood home had contributed to create a person who was living a delusional life. Yes, his professional detective powers were certainly real, but his inability to relate to others and profound lack of empathy suggested a person who had been psychologically maimed in childhood.

In view of the title's reference to orphans and all the associated life suffering, it was not surprising to me that Banks adopted a child, that he developed an affinity for a female adult orphan with whom he agreed on impulse to elope, and that he should mistake a Japanese soldier for his long-lost friend. Although not himself an orphan, Akira had suffered intensely from fear of separation from his own parents. It is this monomaniac theme that affects all of Banks' relationships and blinds him to any other emotion as an adult.

Banks' way of coping with childhood trauma had been emotional control to the point almost of self-suffocation. It is this mood that he identifies in others and that draws him into embryonic relationships. However we learn that he is completely unable to sustain any close relationship as he, in turn, abandons each of these individuals when they try to depend on him for emotional support.

I find it rather alarming that some readers assume that Banks actually found his long-lost friend during the surreal and again traumatic passage through the warren. It is horrendous to see his sociopathic reactions to the little girl and her dead family members. I think this is the moment when the author wants us to understand the extent of the damage done to Banks as a child. Is it not deeply ironic that his only words of consolation to the injured and traumatized child are those that were blithely said to him after his own trauma as a little boy? Perhaps most disturbing for the reader is Banks' complete failure to recognize the sounds of torture in the warren. Surely, the attachment to the magnifying glass which Banks carries with him into the warren indicates his preference for attention to tiny detail as a distraction from the bigger picture of the carnage through which he drags and then casts aside a dying soldier. This is not a healthy individual.

One should also note the sudden outbursts of unjustified and disproportionate anger by Banks toward various characters. These reveal for a moment the intensity of repressed emotion that has been never allowed to surface but which leaks out despite all attempts to be a cerebral detective. The subsequent rapid apologies are evidence of Banks' fight to regain rational control.

The closing section reveals a tawdry story of betrayal and jealousy that caused Banks to lose his parents. While some reviewers argue that the last section does not work well, the revelation that Banks' emotional damage was due entirely to the actions of a close family friend, rather than the war going on around him, is the ultimate irony.

I only fully appreciated the author's creative and linguistic abilities after finishing the novel and reflecting on all its layers and nuances. It is a sign of the author's skill that he can build a work of art upon minute descriptions of objects or distant memories while carrying forward an intensely distressing portrait of a psychologically ill person. The background story of the invasion of China and the insouciance of the expatriates is just a bonus for the committed reader.
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40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, but frustrating., 9 Oct 2003
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
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 disconnected halves-the first half realistic, the second half absurd. In the first half, Banks has been revealed as intelligent and sensitive, but in the second half he suddenly and cruelly abandons his own adopted, orphaned daughter, leaving her in England while he searches for his missing parents. He believes (strangely) that somehow if he can find his parents, he'll be able to avert World War II. His search for them is expedited more by an inordinate number of extraordinary coincidences than by the detective work for which he is supposedly world-renowned. The plot stumbles, and the suspense is compromised.
Since Ishiguro has dealt in past novels with the idea of imperfect memory and/or with characters whose deluded visions of themselves are presented ironically to the reader as facts, one cannot help wondering, while reading the second half, whether Banks really is a great detective, whether he really is doing all the absurd things he presents to us as real events in Shanghai, and whether the author is deliberately showing him in a surreal, rather than real, world. If this is the author's intention, it is by no means clear--there are too few clues in the first half to cause the reader to actively question the view of reality presented there. In addition, it is not accompanied in the second half by any heightened sense of introspection or by any change from the realistic tone and style of the first half. Neither Banks nor the reader learns anything significant on any level other than that of plot.
Ultimately, I found myself haunted by the drama of Banks's search and by his need to resolve the mysteries in his life but frustrated--and annoyed--by his ultimate lack of change and by the unresolved mysteries with which the author leaves us. The author made me feel like a pawn, the victim of literary trickery. Mary Whipple
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Puzzling, 20 Nov 2007
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Mrs. K. A. Wheatley "katywheatley" (Leicester, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
If all you know of Ishiguro is The Remains of the Day, be prepared to be startled. This is a strange, almost surrealistic novel, dealing in mysteries and confusion. The style, though modern, is forced into the narrative patterns of a traditional mystery novel, with a famous detective searching for clues amongst the rubble of a disintegrating country. It deals with the search of Christopher Banks for traces of his parents who disappeared in Shanghai.
It is a tricky book. The tone is unsettling, the plotting complex, and never wholly resolved. Whether this is a metaphor for Christopher's internal struggle is also never really clear. This is a book of beginnings and middles, but there are not a lot of satisfactory endings.
As ever with Ishiguro, it is well written and has that langurous quality which pervades his writing. I found it a frustrating read, and although not expecting a neat 'chocolate box' ending, would have at least like to have found some kind of resolution out of the wreckage. As it was I just found it vaguely unsatisfactory.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you've lost someone as child, read this book, 4 Jun 2012
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
I didn't buy this from Amazon and overall don't indulge in writing very long reviews which this is going to be, but just came across this book listed here with three stars only... I was shocked. I haven't read those reviews because I wanted to share my two cents, unbiased by what others wrote, without any intention to defend this book as in my opinion it's one of the most beautiful (heartbreaking, haunting and enlightening) books I've ever read.

"...for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm."
This is simply the summary of this book, by Christopher Banks at the end of his life. "He" (the protagonist of this book) knows very well what he's talking about.

Over the years I've read many books, self-help books and novels about orphanage, or just abandonment during childhood, child abuse. Might be my own background that lead me first to try to understand then when those books all failed, to find one that describes how I see the situation and the aftermath.

There's no other book that describes that "mission" so well. Christopher, the protagonist of this story is severely flawed by his own society (pretty much how every single book describes London and it's society between the wars), he's captured by how own ambitions to fame. But if you've been a child abandoned you probably see behind it, and understand that it's not real ambition that drives him. He's too limited to see his own shortcomings just like anyone of us would be in his situation, making himself believe the picture he creates about himself. Sarah Hemmings has it right at the start, he's nothing special. But Sarah is just another victim of the same disease, her symptoms though slightly different, describing the exact same damage - that when you are abandoned by those who you would first rely on to love and protect you, a certain will to prove your worth both to yourself and to others would develop deep within you. You start to find excuses and then you get to a point when you cross the boundaries of society to get what you need (e.g. Sarah's scene at the dinner and Christopher in the warren), to ensure to yourself that you can keep up the "picture" you've created to yourself. They all mastered the skill to dismiss any signs of reality that don't fit into their imagined picture of where their place is and what importance the childhood events held. Only Christopher is on his "mission" and finding out the truth sooner or later has to clash with his imagined resolution to the case, of course what he imagined as a child and kept on believing as it's the only outcome any little boy would hope for in his situation. He loses control as he sinks deeper and deeper into his "case", he detaches himself from society in many ways he was still part of it - the simple truth of being an orphan already detached him as a child thus he never fully became part of it. The same happens to many of us who always feel they are outsiders.

There are so many signs throughout the book that I wasn't surprised at the end he ends up the way he is. Same for Jennifer, probably the character who held the most common symptoms of the aftermath: strong ignorance of the importance these events held and sinking into depression. There are only clues as to Jenny's fate, and Sarah's at the end yet if you saw how damaged and desperate these characters were you know they will / have never found their peace.

This is not a detective book, not a war book describing Shanghai and not a romance. All of these are sidelined because of the simple reason that Christopher is unable to observe anything surrounding him, he becomes more and more sunk into his own "belief" as the story goes on, eventually not realising that he is seeking something impossible (Your parents will be there two decades after... really?) He sees the society for what it is, he recognises the signs of ignorance but he doesn't get deeper than that. That same ignorance any of us would face should we end up doing what he does, looking for clues why we grew up as orphans. It's not in the book, but I can well imagine he's been laughed at behind his back by the same people who celebrated his arrival in Shanghai... he was just the latest amusement for those who doesn't know where he's coming from. And those who do, Sarah just desperately tries to escape from everywhere. Life is a big escape for her, she becomes restless and nothing's good enough because eventually she never realises what she is looking for, and that it was taken from her long before she started to look for it. "Leave before it's too late for us" she says when it was always too late for her. The other character, Jenny understands this mission clearly, she would probably do the same had she not known her own parents are dead. Christopher only knows that his parents disappeared, and needs closure.
At the end, the main thing he probably realised is that he will never get closure. As soon as he knows what happened it will haunt him if it was worth for his father, what was taken from him as a child and most of all, what had become of his mother and what she went through... and there's also the guilt of a child who believes if he did something good and managed to turn things good his parents would come home. If he would've never "let his guard down" as he has put it and watch out for Mother. Akira describes this when the parents fight and he advises Puffin (I adore the nicname) that he should be more Englishman. And Puffin tries.... grown up, Christopher tries too but he can never make up for how guilty he feels for his existence. At the end, when he interviews the Yellow Snake and finds out about his heritage that's what I mean. That kind of guilt lasts forever and even if it's not coming through at that time, he makes it clear when of all the things that could be said, the only thing he asks is if he could be forgiven for not finding Mother in time? His realisation that he's always been loved, to many people that is obvious and thus they never clearly come to this conclusion, but to those who've been in a similar situation as children, this is the ultimate closure, almost impossible to believe and to accept. Yet for Christopher at the end of the book, there're hints he never accepted and he never fully came to terms and managed to understand that nothing was his fault.

I've never read a book that described this more accurately. Sure this book has it's flaws, like all other books do but this is a beautiful, haunting book that will probably remain with me just like Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure did for example which I've read about two decades ago.

The main (or only) flaw in the writing start builds too slow and probably would cause some to stop reading, while the end is too rushed as if it is only "selective memory" of an old man now, while being younger he included so many irrelevant memories that it slowed the story. Because of this the whole book ends up quite dispaced. It comes through that Ishiguro rushed to finish the book. But looking at it as Christopher's memoirs, no human being would write his memoirs watching out for the pace to be even I guess and as an old man, he really focuses on the small and simple things while being a young fella he was burning with ambition and young drive paired with hidden anger and angst a bit as well.

The only thing that put me off at first was Akira's reappearance. It was so against the odds at that time, until I realised - and I settled with this theory - that by that time, Christopher is completely lost emotionally. He abandoned his only chance for love without thinking as the "clue" of the house was just too itching to be left and he knows the danger he is in yet he's driven by this almost insane belief that later unleashes in a chatarsis in the house, and finally, calms down in the car towards the British Consulate. He says something like, he thought he knew everything but it all fell apart. It was not Akira he encountered there but he so desperately wanted the man to be Akira. He also realises when he can finally see clear. In many ways, it's good he meets the Yellow Snake after this experience. Burned out as he is that's when he could understand and process what he heard and not disregard or ignore like many other clues before.

I recommend this book to everyone who ever lost someone and felt that urge to find out that it's not true what you've been told, mom didn't run away or granny didn't pass away... when you created a world of alternatives so you could escape the reality and the hurt it caused you. This book is the story of how Christopher Banks followed those alternatives only to find out that the reality was much worse than not knowing and finally, he realised that he could have never succeeded.

One more note about Ishiguro. Having read Never Let Me Go, narrated by Kathy (the protagonist) and this book, I find Kazuo Ishiguro the only writer who completely implements the era, time and cultural diversity throughout the story telling, narration by his main protagonist. Many times the words, sentences and descriptions are the same while the character would require it to be different (most obvious example to this is the otherwise amazing Song Of Ice And Fire books, only because there every chapter is from a different POV yet they "sound" the same, being told by a 40-something warrior or a 10-year old girl.) Ishiguro completely recreates the mindset of Christopher with all his rights and wrongs, his disbeliefs and fears and imaginations and that couldn't be more far from how he told that different story through Kathy's words in Never Let Me Go. Amazing talent I'd say, to be able to play with words in such depth.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable but unconvincing, 4 Jan 2010
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
What I found so fascinating about this novel was the increasing sense that the narrator was lying, or perhaps fantasising. Short scenes early on reveal that the way he sees himself is at odds with others' views of him. As the plot develops, this increasing distrust of the narrator is a very interesting sensation. However, this sensation is never quite resolved. We never know quite understand how much of his description of his life was a delusion, particularly as the plot becomes more and more ludicrous. Whilst clearly the unreliability of the narrator is the point of the book - raising questions not only about memory and self-delusion but subverting the reader's need to have everything explained - nevertheless it is leaves an unsatisfying and frustrating sensation. The plot gets wrapped up, but the narrator's personality doesn't. We never really get to know him, and I found it frustrating never really to find out who he is.
But then isn't that just like life?
Having just finished it I will read it again. It is beautifully well written and very enjoyable, though I concur with those who feel it is not Ishiguro's best work.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Unrequired Ish., 25 Feb 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
I must say it feels terrifically disloyal to give anything by Ishiguro less than 5 stars. His four previous novels are all utterly perfect, but there's something not quite right about "When We Were Orphans."
It is this. Whenever Ishiguro's previous novel, "The Unconsoled," was published in 1995, he suffered a terrible critical mauling. Now that the book is more widely accepted, the current edition of the paperback dares to make askance reference to the controversy that dogged it. One would like to think that Ishiguro, a supremely accomplished novelist with surely no lack of self-awareness, would have let it be and allowed the book to come into its own in its own time.
Unfortunately he expressed deep dismay that so few readers initially had "got" "The Unconsoled." He didn't intend it to be obscure, he said. He explained the themes. He said that he would write it again, perhaps less opaque this time: more accessible.
And that is what he has done and "Orphans" is the result. It's a supremely well-written book but, well, so uncalled-for... It's almost impossible to read Christopher Banks's narrative without thinking fondly of Ryder, the narrator of "The Unconsoled." The same inability to understand why things are happening, the same obsession with parents... As a result, oddly, I was at variance with most of the reviewers of the hardback edition in finding the closing section the most interesting part of the book, simply because it doesn't rehash the last book and enters new territory.
It should be read, but not before you read his others.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strangely unsatisfying, 23 Dec 2000
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This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Hardcover)
I enjoyed enormously the first 200 pages or so. Then the book gradually descends into over-dramatic and frankly incredible ACTION. Was the author seduced by the idea of a screenplay and a film (and lots of $$$) ? The last 50 pages are frankly cheap melodrama more reminiscent of a John Wayne movie than anything else. What on earth was happining to the elegant and paced text of the first two thirds of the book ?
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Elementary, 3 Jun 2007
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans revisits the classically English detective novel, mimicking and deliberately undermining the style of authors like Agatha Christie. It uses this simple subtext to show how the global catastrophe of the second world war finally destroyed the quaint notion that evil and criminality could be overcome by logic and reason. Whereas America had Superman, Ishiguro might argue, England had Miss Marple and Poirot, and in the same way that America has had its heros brutally examined, Ishiguro tries to do something similar here. Christopher Banks, the frustratingly stiff narrator, embodies many of the English class stereotypes that are perpetuated by the novels of Agatha Christie and their televisual adaptations. Hardly a sympathetic voice, he is by turns haughty and superior, but most often laughably naive. Orphaned as a boy when his parents disappear from the international settlement in Shanghai, he resolves to become a 'great detective'. His apparent elevation to this status is described in the most simplistic and perfunctary manner, and the facile (elementary even) account of his investigative abilities continues as he tries to uncover the mystery of his parent's kidnapping. Many readers have pointed out that this is a deliberate parody that sets the the narrator and reader up for the jarring realities of the final third of the book. I would argue that Ishiguro is incapable of creating a convincing detective mystery with the clues, red herrings and ingenious deductions necessary to evoke the genre. He attempts to satirise the genre, but is impatient to undermine it before he has created any kind of puzzle or suspense to the narrative. A far-greater novel could have been made if he had mastered some of the principles of Agatha Christie's books first, before pulling the rug out from under the readers' feet. Narrational changes are hinged upon things as basic as someone 'suddenly remembering', making for a clumsily facile first two thirds, incredulous and difficult to invest in emotionally.

The protagonist's subsequent descent into the chaos of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and the decadence and despondency of the international community there, is more intriguing. The seedy underbelly of Shanghai is exposed in a series of increasingly sordid revelations, from elicit gambling dens to the factions vying for control of the opium trade devestating China. But Banks's naivety becomes increasingly implausible as he staggers around front line Shanghai armed with only a magnifying glass to aid his search for his parents - who he bewilderingly believes to be still held captive decades after their disapperance. There is a heavy dose of irony in this, but to the expense of real dramatic tension or feeling. In the ultimate revelation concerning the fate of his parents, Banks is confronted by his nemesis: "A detective! What good is that to anyone? Stolen jewels, aristocrats murdered for their inheritance. Do you suppose that's all there is to contend with?" It is here Ishiguro's intentions become explicit, but by this point I was past caring. Too much weak plotting and insincerity had conspired to make this no more than an average novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Study of Loss, 18 Oct 2012
This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
When we were orphans is the story of Christopher Banks. Christopher's early years were spent with his parents in the International Settlement in Shanghai. When he is about ten first his father, then his mother disappear, believed kidnapped. Christopher is sent back to an Aunt in England. He grows up and fulfils a childhood ambition to become a famous detective. However, his life is dominated and obsessed by the mystery of his parents. Eventually he goes back to Shanghai to find his parents, or to establish what became of them.

The book is extraordinary. It is a study of loss and the impact it has. In Christopher's mind he holds the kidnappings to be true and the fate of his parents more important than anything at all, whether its war, relationships or personal safety. In order to maintain this psychological framework he has to distort his world. The closer he comes to where he believes his parents are, the greater the delusion becomes. It is a powerful demonstration of the effect of trauma, as is Christopher's inability to make relationships.

There are flaws in the book, the initial pace is slow, the story merely ticks over and Uncle Philip lacks a little credibility, his character stretched to assist in the conclusion of the story. Amongst other quibbles, it is questionable whether Christopher would recover as quickly as he does from his most delusional phase.

In some stories these flaws would lead you to score the book more poorly, but the ambition, skill and insight that it has compensate in full. Clever, insightful, disturbing, heart-rending and beautifully written, it is superb.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Too many inconsistencies and improbablities - but still an enjoyable read., 4 Aug 2011
By 
Nigel Mc (The Chilterns) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: When We Were Orphans (Paperback)
This is a rather strange novel. It is an easy book to read and get into the story but there are so many inconsistencies and improbabilities that the reader is ultimately left slightly bewildered and a little dissatisfied. In particular I thought that it was inconceivable that Christopher appeared to accept the fate of his childhood friend without the slightest care or curiosity.

Similarly, Christopher's meteoric rise to fame is barely credible given his youth and inexperience. Then there is the inexplicable changes in his personal character. In the first half of the book he is shown as a very caring, sensitive person while he is almost the exact opposite when he returns to Shanghai.

The premise of the story is also rather odd. I found it strange that an obviously intelligent person could believe that his parents would still be alive after, ostensibly being held in captivity for two decades in a hostile environment. Some sense of sanity might have been restored if the diplomats had taken a more cautious, realistic stance but they simply fuelled Christopher's' optimism by discussing the mode of the `welcome home' celebrations. It is all a little unbelievable.

However, despite these criticisms I still enjoyed the book but it is not in the same league as Ishiguro's other novels.
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