cover image When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro. Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41054-3

Despite some contrived events and a tendency to rework the characterizations and themes of his previous books, Ishiguro's latest novel triumphs with the seductiveness of his prose and his ability to invigorate shadowy events with sinister implications. Like all of Ishiguro's protagonists, the narrator, here a recent Cambridge graduate named Christopher Banks, is an emotionally detached man who hides his real feelings from himself and who passively endures being trapped in nightmarish settings that give him ""a grave foreboding."" Like the hero of The Unconsoled, Christopher is bewildered by ""the assumption shared by everyone... that it was somehow my sole responsibility to resolve the crisis."" The crisis here is nothing less than averting WWII, which shares priority in Christopher's mind with the disappearance of his parents in Shanghai in the early 1900s, when he was nine years old. Christopher is sent to school in England, where he first formulates his dream of becoming a famous detective, an objective he achieves at a young age. Though he is convinced that his parents are still alive and that he can find them, he doesn't return to Shanghai until 1937, when he is in his mid 30s. It's obvious to the reader that Christopher deludes himself about many things, such as his conviction that when he ""roots out evil,"" he is ""cleansing the world of wickedness."" This inclination toward grandiosity is a direct result of Christopher's sense of powerlessness as an orphan. While he is unaware of the connection, he is drawn to mercurial Sarah Hemmings, also orphaned in childhood. Ishiguro again conjures time and place with precise detail, evoking both the exotic atmosphere of prewar Shanghai, festering with the contrast between the arrogant residents of the International Settlement and the Chinese living in squalid slums and supplied with opium by foreign merchants, and class-conscious England, in which one's ""connections"" depend on family lineage. While the novel is mainly an introspective account of the protagonist's emotional dislocation, Ishiguro shows a new mastery of narrative tension, notably with Christopher's Kafkaesque experience during the Japanese invasion. In the end, Christopher understands that his vision of reality was distorted, and that his lifelong mission, ""chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents,"" was the inescapable fate of one caught in the toils of historical turbulence. 75,000 first printing. (Sept.)