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