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When We Were Orphans Paperback – 5 Mar 2001

3.4 out of 5 stars 132 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber; New edition edition (5 Mar. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 057120516X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571205165
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 2.4 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (132 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 102,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description

Amazon Review

"... I've worked hard over the years to check the spread of crime and evil wherever it has manifested itself."
Christopher Banks, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, has dedicated his life to detective work but behind his successes lies one unsolved mystery: the disappearance of his parents when he was a small boy living in the International Settlement in Shanghai. Moving between England and China in the inter-war period, the book, encompassing the turbulence and political anxieties of the time and the crumbling certainties of a Britain deeply involved in the opium trade in the East, centres on Banks's idealistic need to make sense of the world through the small victories of detection and his need to understand finally what happened to his mother and father.

This new novel, however, is the deliberate antithesis of the classic English detective story--the hermetic country-house worlds of Agatha Christie, the classic "locked room" puzzles in which order and sanity is restored at the story's end. Ishiguro mimics the functional style and clipped speech patterns of the genre, ironising its reliance on melodrama and stereotype, while developing a narrative of subtlety, great emotional depth, and political and cultural acuity: what we get is a negative image of classic detective fiction, in which the solved crimes are mentioned in passing and the real mystery is played out in the psychology of the detective himself. The act of detection, Ishiguro suggests, is one we all perform on our own past, struggling to marshal clues and evidence whilst trying to construct the story of ourselves; the one mystery Banks seems unable to solve is his own.

If Ishiguro's concerns as a writer remain broadly the same as in previous novels such as his Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day--the complexities, instability and elusiveness of memory, dramatised through a first-person narrator--this new book shows how flexible and powerful the form has become for him. Banks' quest is both deeply personal and resonantly emblematic of us all:

...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.

When We Were Orphans is an astonishing book, rich and profound on many levels, and one that will live clearly in the memory of all who read it. --Burhan Tufail


'You seldom read a novel that so convinces you it is extending the possibilities of fiction.' --Sunday Times

'Ishiguro is the best and most original writer of his generation, and ''When We Were Orphans'' could be by no other writer. It haunts the mind. It moves to tears.' --Mail on Sunday

'His fullest achievement yet.' --New York Times Review of Books --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Not as good as it appeared to be, rambled on too much. Found it more interesting towards the last chapter
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Not what I was expecting but an absorbing read, nevertheless.
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Format: 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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Format: 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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Format: Paperback
The narrator of this ambitious novel, set in Shanghai and England, is Christopher Banks, a fashionable and self-admiring society detective who is kept busy solving murders and other heinous crimes in 1930s England. Brought up in Shanghai he decided to become a detective in his childhood, spurred on by the games that he and his Japanese friend, Akiro, played together in which they set out to find out who had kidnapped his father in the style of their hero, Inspector Kung.

Banks’ untroubled childhood ended when his parents disappeared and he was sent back to live with an uncaring aunt in England. After university, as his fame and expertise increased it became more and more necessary for him to return to China to determine the fate of his parents – after studying the case at a distance he already had formed an opinion of their fate.

His father was based in Shanghai working for a London-based company involved in the opium trade whilst his mother was personally involved in protesting against this trade. Their marriage was, as a consequence, somewhat fractious. Banks describes various aspects of Banks’ earlier life in China and England; in the latter he is attracted to the manipulative Sarah Hemmings, also an orphan, who reappears at key intervals; his fascination with her is only enhanced by her treatment of him. When he decides that it is time to return to Shanghai to see whether his conjectures are correct, she is already there, having married a distinguished servant of the Crown, Sir Cecil, who was determined to do what he can to defuse the Sino-Japanese War. In this he is unsuccessful but Sarah will notstop pushing him to increase her standing amongst the ex-pat and local communities when ‘what he wanted was a rest’.
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By Mrs. K. A. Wheatley TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 20 Nov. 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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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