Book Nook: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Image Credit: Samaneh Sadeghi Marasht

Lorcan Kelly critically analyses and praises the work of Japanese-born British novelist, Kazuo Ishiguro, and describes a fitting spot to read his work.

What to read…

Born in Japan and raised in England, Kazuo Ishiguro often incorporates the contrasting cultures of both the East and the West into his writing. When We Were Orphans is no exception, detailing the life of a man who, like Ishiguro, moved from East to West when he was a young boy. Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, particularly lauded for the acute sense of emotion and intense humanity in his work.

Ishiguro’s fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, was first published in 2000. Set in England and China during the interwar years (1918-1939), the reader follows widely renowned detective Christopher Banks as he rises to the peak of his career accumulating notoriety and prestige with every case he solves, during a period of economic hardship and heightened criminal activity.

The novel is structured in three broad segments. The first follows Banks’ navigation through the social plane of London’s upper-class elite, and the superficial social dynamics that come with such a lifestyle. The second follows his reflection of his childhood in the international settlement of Shanghai and the uncertain fate of his parents. The final segment details Banks’ return to Shanghai as an adult and his investigation into the disappearance of both his mother and father. 

As in his Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1989) and the popular Never Let Me Go (2005), Ishiguro employs his signature reflective style of writing, incorporating the inherent flaws of human memory, emotion, and perception with a practised hand. In this novel, we see Christopher repeatedly second-guess his own memory – a recurring feature throughout Ishiguro’s works. This method of unreliable narration exemplifies the intrigue and mystery of the novel, invoking an intense curiosity within the reader which few authors are able to fully achieve. 

Those unfamiliar with Ishiguro’s work may look at the novel’s blurb and write it off as just another by-the-books true crime story in the never-ending tsunami of work in the genre. However, those who are more acquainted with Ishiguro would understand that this is a completely inaccurate preconception to its form. Not once throughout the novel is the reader walked step-by-step through logical analyses of some gruesome crime scene, nor are they kept guessing by tiresome red herrings. In fact, the more criminological elements of the story take a back seat in place of a much more pensive, emotional journey undertaken by a man with a troubled childhood. 

Ishiguro also displays his mastery of conveying setting, immersing the reader into the bustling urban landscapes of 1930s London and Shanghai. This surprised me at first – having read Ishiguro’s other work, I was familiar with the author’s fondness of rural settings The Artist of the Floating World (1986) and The Buried Giant (2015) come to mind). The first two sections of the novel establish these cityscapes in a beautifully tangible manner, walking the reader through central London and Shanghai in a dreamlike fashion. The final section of the novel portrays the city as becoming a claustrophobia-inducing hellscape of violence and destruction, a section I read in one sitting with my heart banging and completely unable to tear myself away. Ishiguro is a master of concise description, giving the reader just enough to immerse, while avoiding the forcing of paragraph after paragraph of adjective-laden sensory writing. This economical style allows Ishiguro to say a lot without saying very much at all, and encourages the reader to consume his work at a leisurely pace. 

And where to read it…

The sounds of Dublin City crash around my ears as I step off the bus at Dawson Street. It is 12:45, so I know I’ll have to rush to reach my nook before the office workers and builders monopolise the area on their lunch breaks. At a pace somewhere between walking and running, I turn around and slide through the throng of shoe shoppers, coffee drinkers, and cigarette smokers, and dart across the suddenly empty road toward the black iron gates.

Stephen’s Green is quiet, but it won’t be for long. I have to hurry. 

In my loping half-jog, I eventually make it to the bench I spent so much of my summer on. Its chipped brown wood instils a sense of comfort and warmth in me – an intangible shield for the biting November air. I catch my foggy breath and sit down in the middle of the bench. Now, one might suppose that this is quite rude. Of course, there is enough space on the bench for two people to sit with a healthy half-meter between them. But I won’t tolerate it today. I’ve had enough of sharing. You see, I shared my seat on the packed bus into town with a man who wouldn’t stop wiping his dripping nose on his sleeve. I shared a raunchy joke with my family at breakfast, only to be met with outcries of “we’re eating!” and “now is NOT the time!” (That’s what I get for trying to lighten the mood). That’s twice I have shared today, and no more sharing shall do. 

A bell echoes in the distance, signalling the oncoming crowd of worker-drones and their short-lived freedom. I take my book from my bag and shuffle forward a bit before finding my mark. Before I open the page, however, I am struck with some divine urge to look around, so I do. 

The November air rustles through the trees as I survey the scene – people in suits and shirts rushing to find their nooks; young friends laughing and huddling together in the cold; the faint sound of the Luas as it pulls away from the platform. A beautiful fusion of person and place; this hub of perpetual movement which defines this city. 

A wondrous sense of comfort bubbles up inside me, and I open my book ensconced in a warm blanket of absolute tranquillity.