When We Were Orphans

Rain has been falling steadily over the past few days, and it’s been the perfect sort of weather to curl up with a murder mystery – or any sort of crime novel, for that matter. While I didn’t have an Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler in my hands, Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans came pretty close. That’s not to say I was impressed by the book. Perhaps, after Never Let Me Go I was expecting another confident, highly subversive and haunting literary hybrid. Most likely, I was just allured by the cover, and glimpses of Chandleresque settings and characters. Whatever I was searching for, I didn’t find it in Orphans.

There are certainly some shared thematic concerns (detective Christopher Banks has a fervent desire to restore order to a world permeated by evil, as does Chandler’s Marlowe), but Orphans remains intrinsically a portrayal of the human psyche.  This book is merely an echo of the crime genre; there is nothing about it that redefines or challenges the conventions of a murdery mystery. In fact, apart from the melancholy atmosphere and the Old Shanghai setting, Orphans doesn’t even come close to resembling a murder mystery. Firstly, there is a severe lack of detail concerning the cases frequently mentioned by the protagonist, such as the Mannering case. Secondly, the focus is not on society’s evils, but rather on the exploration of memory and loss.

One pattern I can clearly see emerging, though, is Ishiguro’s style:  first-person narration in simple unadorned English, flashbacks weaving through the past of the protagonist. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Ishiguro a one-trick pony, but I was disappointed at the structural similarities between this and Never Let Me Go. Of course, one difference between Never Let Me Go and Orphans is the uncertainty of the narration. Kathy’s memories are concrete; more confidently tied together. Banks, on the other hand, is confused, and while the haziness creates a certain sense of verisimilitude, it also succeeds in confusing the reader too.

For the truth is, over this past year, I have become increasingly preoccupied with my memories, a preoccupation encouraged by the discovery that these memories – of my childhood, of my parents – have lately begun to blur. A number of times recently I have found myself struggling to recall something that only two three or years ago I believed was ingrained in my mind for ever.

There are continual hints throughout the book that the narrator is unreliable. I never really saw it as odd until I finished reading the last few pages, but the title itself hardly makes sense: When We Were Orphans. How is it possible to be an orphan in the past tense? The title is clearly a subtle and clever indication that perhaps events aren’t as Banks perceives them.

In hindsight, many of Banks’ statements are quite ironic.

The trouble with you, Morgan, is that you keep muddling things. First you muddle up me and Bigglesworth. Now you get Inspector Kung muddled with some worthless ragamuffin. Being out here’s got your head all soft, old man.

Oh, and that’s another thing: the pomp. All the ‘old chap’ and ‘old fellow’ and ‘old man’ business reminded me horribly of Jay Gatsby, in the worst way possible. Can there ever be a valid excuse for cheesy, stilted dialogue?

In the end, I’m not sure whether I liked this book or not. As is evident from my incoherent review, there is a lot of haziness to When We Were Orphans, and that’s not at all in an artful deliberate way. While I did appreciate a mystery in the dreary weather, a lot of it was tosh. Long-winded, convoluted, unjustifiable tosh. I might have accepted it from any other writer, but I can’t let Ishiguro off the hook. He’s simply too talented to waste his life away on mediocre books such as this. I found myself rolling my eyes several times, crying out “why?” Even the setting didn’t do it for me. Woolf manages so delicately in Between the Acts to capture the decaying grandeur of British Imperialism – the final traces of a dying way of life – but here, it’s all a dash of this, a hint of that, and nothing much of anything at all.

Hopefully, Remains of the Day will be a better experience.

Edit: Some people (not on this blog) have commented along the lines of: “why didn’t you like this book? It’s not meant to be a murder mystery. You’re looking at it the wrong way!” I thought I would make it clear that I do realise this book is not primarily intended to be a murder mystery, as such (hence the statement above – “Orphans remains intrinsically a portrayal of the human psyche”). However, as it invariably contains elements of the crime genre, it is understandable to perceive it as one of his ‘literary hybrids’. This is, after all, what many would consider Never Let Me Go to be. In the end, it hardly changes my opinion of the book. Whether it is a hybrid, or merely using Shanghai and detectives as a backdrop, I still didn’t like the book. End of story.

» I for Ishiguro: this book was read as a part of the A to Z challenge

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18 thoughts on “When We Were Orphans

  1. I had a similar reading experience with this one. Felt that the flighty, detached prose was intended to reflect the impermanence of our existence, but though it an inappropriate pairing of language with theme. A mystery requires a more solid expression of circumstance – at least for my tastes.

  2. I have this on my bookmooch wishlist, this being one of the two last novels by him that I haven’t read. I wanted to read everything by him, but now am not so sure. Maybe I should skip this one.

  3. Sorry to hear that this one was a let-down for you. I am one of the few people on this earth who was not at all impressed with “Never Let Me Go” – it’s shocking, I know – and while it didn’t exactly put me off of Ishiguro, it certainly made me less interested in reading more by him. I’m still a bit curious, though I can’t say exactly which other book he’s written I’d like to read. Probably not this one, though!

    I do hate when I’m in the mood for a very particular sort of novel and think I’ve found a suitable “fix” for that craving, only to find the novel unsatisfying. I think it happens to me more than I would like!

    1. Frances – definitely agree with you that a mystery should have a concrete basis. That’s where I think he stumbled. In an attempt to create something outstanding, Ishiguro muddled everything up. There are far too many elements to this book, and they all sort of leak together into one big mess of a puddle. I’m sure that a reflection on the ephemeral nature of memory was consciously done, but many times throughout the book, I wondered if the writer himself was confused about his intention. Very confused.

      claire – Personally, I’d give it a try anyway. I’m interested in what other book blogs have to say about certain books, but in the end …Because reading is such a subjective thing, you never know what you’ll think of a book until you’ve read it, right? :)

      Steph – gasp! Well, I can understand why people aren’t impressed by it. What didn’t you like about it though? Was it the science fiction/dyspotia element, or was it his style of writing?

      I’m not sure which of his books I’ll be reading next, either. Probably Artist of the Floating World. Sounds the most ‘normal’ of all his books. I was thinking Remains of the Day, but I’m not sure how much I trust the Booker judges. The Unconsoled, I’ve heard, is “musical and Kafkaesque”, which sounds intriguing. Then again, critics described this book as ‘haunting’ and ‘beautiful’ and a book that ‘moves you to tears’… Hm.

      If it was his writing style you didn’t like, you probably shouldn’t go near him again.

  4. I also wasn’t blown away by Never Let Me Go. I found the writing a bit too simplistic, whereas in The Remains of the Day and A Pale View of Hills, the simplicity felt very lyrical and authentic. However, I liked Never Let Me Go enough to say good things about it, it just wasn’t my favourite of his.

    The Unconsoled I remember only vaguely. I think I was too young or too distracted to have appreciated it then. I do think it’s the most complex of all his books. I should probably reread it.

    You’re right, Tuesday, maybe someday I’ll probably have a go at Orphans, but for now I might prioritize Floating World instead. It’s actually the very first book I’ve wanted to read by him but have never had the chance to get hold of. :)

    1. claire – can’t believe I forgot about A Pale View of Hills! And that’s the book that actually led me to be interested in Ishiguro (I still haven’t read it, but I saw the cover image and I added it to my to-read list a gazillion years ago). I realise now that I shouldn’t be disappointed in Ishiguro because of this one book. He has so many other great novels. Definitely looking forward to Remains of the Day and Floating World and The Unconsoled. Which is basically everything he’s written!

      1. zawan – was the other one that bad?! I actually quite liked it. Except for the fact that I had no control over the widgets, and that they only showed excerpts on the front page. And, well, no sidebar. Im getting really frustrated with WordPress though. Do you know of any other decent blog hosts apart from Blogger and Livejournal?

  5. Readers who made a merit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day would well up such high anticipation of When We Were Orphans and only to find the book did not achieve the same caliber of the precedent. However jumbled or confusing the book might have appeared (to many people), the plot is very simple.

    Far as the unreliable narrator tactics goes, as readers, we are not obliged to believe everything that Banks says (so why the pet peeves?). Ishiguro does not seem to make clear which of the leads readers should hold on to and deem as the truth. The truth is, our ability of recollections is not always as accurate as we think (or we want). The inevitable consequence of such shortcoming only produces in mind mishmash or a collage of memory fragments. Imagine all these combined with the naivete of a 9-year-old, how reliable can the narration be? Even though detective Banks had become increasingly preoccupied with his memories (more or less a preoccupation encouraged by the discovery of his childhood memories), what really happened to his parents remained a blur. From time to time Banks “was struck anew by how hazy so much of the memories have grown” (70) as he had trouble recalling something that happened 2 or 3 years ago. So while we might have to guess what the truth is, Ishiguro does subtly hint not to trust everything we read.

  6. Yes, I agree – the plot is simple, but I didn’t like the structure of it. As I said, I didn’t think Ishiguro’s portrayal of Banks’ search for his parents was done at all in an artful or deliberate way. The voice was grating; the dialogue poorly written, the characters unlikeable. The ending – for all Banks’ unreliableness – predictable and cliched in nature. Maybe my dislike is stronger because I was so pleased by Never Let Me Go, but I really do believe Ishiguro is capable of much more than this. Orphans was a let-down for me.

  7. Tuesday, I am kind of with Claire as to why I didn’t like Never Let Me Go. I felt the writing was very simplistic and in my mind it all came across in a monotone. I just felt that Ishiguro used his inherently emotional subject matter to drive the story rather than imbuing his own writing with any emotion. I felt it very hard to connect with the narrator – on an intellectual level, I saw what a rich story there was to tell, given that it was rife with all these moral quandaries, but on a personal level, I didn’t care what the narrator was going through mostly because she herself was so apathetic! I suppose I just felt that Ishiguro hit the goldmine in terms of the touchy topic he picked but I didn’t feel as though he earned an emotional payoff. Additionally, I never thought any of the twists and turns were very surprising throughout the novel.

    BUT, I really liked the typeface that the book was printed in. I’m talking about the American paperback version. So pretty! ;)

    1. That’s exactly how I felt about When We Were Orphans, though for some reason, I liked all of it in Never Let Me Go! Maybe with the latter, the plot was exciting enough that I didn’t care about whether or not I could connect with the characters and the writing. Orphans definitely didn’t have a plot compelling enough to keep me happy. It was all so-so.

  8. Ok, well that settles it then – I will probably avoid When We Were Orphans! Maybe I’ll eventually try Remains of the Day, or The Unconsoled… But I think I’ll borrow my next Ishiguro from the library in case it should turn out that stylistically he’s just not for me.

  9. Tuesday.. I like most of the templates you’ve chosen though! Excepting two: the one without the images, which looked like just a list of titles, and the newspaper format. WordPress looks really good with the images you post. ALthough I can understand your frustration about the widgets, as the templates are not that flexible with those.

    You might like to try out typepad. I really like the look to Frances’s blog, too.

  10. Steph – that’s a good idea! Librarycard = failproof investment for avid readers, hahah. I should probably go to the library soon… It’s just been raining like crazy and I haven’t been in the mood to go anywhere at all :)

    claire – yeah I didn’t really like those two either. Widgets, and also as you say, fonts. A lot of the nicer templates don’t have that softer georgia font which I prefer. Really unfortunate. But I suppose I should just live with it. I considered typepad, but I’m afraid it seems like a bit of a frivolity to pay for a book blog when I’m rather stretched as it is b/c of my manic book buying!

  11. Hi,

    I really enjoyed the discussion. It was so insightful. Usually most blogs have comments that are vague or generic but each comment in this blog added meaning to a reader’s overall understanding. I actually made notes. Thanks and do keep writing.

    1. Hi, Swapna! Thanks for dropping by (and commenting). I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion, please feel free to contribute to it :)

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