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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

When we were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro

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To purchase When we were Orphans

Title: When we were Orphans
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 336 pages
Availability: When we were Orphans - US
When we were Orphans - UK
When we were Orphans - Canada
Quand nous étions orphelins - France
Als wir Waisen waren - Deutschland
Quando eravamo orfani - Italia
Cuando fuimos huérfanos - España
  • Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 2000
  • Shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award, 2000

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Our Assessment:

B+ : strongly told but odd tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christ. Science Monitor A 5/10/2000 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph B- 20/3/2000 Caroline Moore
Entertainment Weekly B 22/9/2000 Troy Patterson
Far East. Econ. Review A- 31/8/2000 Stephen Vines
The Guardian A- 1/4/2000 Maya Jaggi
London Rev. of Books . 13/4/2000 James Francken
The LA Times B+ 24/9/2000 Jonathan Levi
Neue Zürcher Zeitung B 2/9/2000 Angela Schader
The New Leader . 9-10/2000 Tova Reich
The New Republic B 16/10/2000 James Wood
New Statesman B+ 3/4/2000 Phil Whitaker
The NY Rev. of Books A- 5/10/2000 Pico Iyer
The NY Times B- 19/9/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 24/9/2000 Michael Gorra
The New Yorker . 11/9/2000 Joan Acocella
The Observer B 19/3/2000 Philip Hensher
Salon B+ 19/9/2000 Gavin McNett
San Francisco Chronicle A- 24/9/2000 Brian Bouldrey
The Spectator A- 25/3/2000 Andrew Barrow
Der Spiegel . 16/10/2000 Joachim Kronsbein
The Sunday Times . 2/4/2000 John Carey
Time . 18/9/2000 Paul Gray
TLS A- 31/3/2000 Joyce Carol Oates
USA Today . 14/9/2000 Carol Memmott
The Village Voice B 4/10/2000 Benjamin Anastas
Wall St. Journal . 15/9/2000 Merle Rubin
The Washington Post B+ 10/9/2000 Jonathan Yardley
Die Zeit . (38/2000) Susanne Mayer

  Review Consensus:

  No real consensus. Most admire Ishiguro's writing and many like what he is trying to do, but there is some disappointment regarding the story itself. Most are also disappointed with the ending -- though some did like it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Kazuo Ishiguro has constructed his latest novel with such psychological precision that you'll want to read it through a magnifying glass and turn the pages with a pair of sterilized tweezers." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(I)n this novel, the emotionally strangulated butler-speak sounds increasingly and disconcertingly like John Major. (...) What is disconcerting is the uncertainty of tone. Parts of the novel are -- though never naturalistic -- quite brilliantly vivid. (...) But all too often, when Christopher returns to Shanghai, the parody becomes self-parody." - Caroline Moore, Daily Telegraph

  • "The real mystery Ishiguro sets up involves the nebulous nature of Christopher’s perceptions, which makes for a fascinating philosophical mystery but a coldly distant story." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "On one level, the book is about Banks' search for his identity by trying to unravel the mystery of his parent's disappearance when he was a child in Shanghai. On another level, it is about the strange anomaly that was the international settlement in Shanghai and, as ever with Ishiguro, it is about personal loyalty, betrayal and love." - Stephen Vines, Far Eastern Economic Review

  • "With the detective peering through his metaphorical magnifying glass as the globe plunges towards conflagration, the novel probes, with growing absurdity, the wounds of childhood as they drive and distort adulthood - at the cost of intimacy, family and personal happiness." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

  • "If Ishiguro's ambitious experiment fails, at the end, to satisfy, the fault may be found in the thoroughness of the stylistic camouflage in which the author cloaks his hero. Never subtle, the clothing is nevertheless opaque. And one suspects that the true Christopher, were we ever to find him beneath his disguises, might prove a terrific bore." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) tight drama of a poignantly self-deluding soul, acted out on a cruel and indifferent international stage." - Tova Reich, The New Leader

  • "Christopher's world seems to have been borrowed from an English novel, and this is surely Ishiguro's intended effect. Christopher is producing a masquerade of a style that is already something of a masquerade; he is not entirely real -- not to himself, not to those who encounter him, and not to Ishiguro's readers. (...) (Ishiguro) wants us to see Christopher as a man deformed by the effort of conformity -- deformed into genre, into unreality, and, if necessary, into falsehood." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "The only real flaw in this intriguing book is the return, in the closing chapters, to a rational perspective. Having taken us on a voyage into a mind unhinged by loss, Ishiguro seems to need to resolve the story that started us out on the journey -- tying up loose ends; explaining (most of) the conundrums. (...) While some readers may find it satisfying, the sudden reversion of tone and the neatness of the resolutions leave the ending rather flat and prosaic." - Phil Whitaker, New Statesman

  • "When We Were Orphans traces the collapse of a civilization and the scattering of just about everything, and shows how the very wish to belong is complicit in that unraveling (as it describes how the only home Banks knows turns into a maze of refugees). And in its sadness, as in its willingness to stretch and experiment with realism, it reminds us that Ishiguro is at heart as much a European as an English writer." - Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books

  • "(T)he reader is left with the impression that instead of envisioning -- and rendering -- a coherent new novel, Mr. Ishiguro simply ran the notion of a detective story through the word processing program of his earlier novels, then patched together the output into the ragged, if occasionally brilliant, story we hold in our hands." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "This isn't a detective novel, it only looks like one. As in his earlier books, Ishiguro's real concern is with his main character's unerring ability to miss the call of freedom, in the blindness that his sense of obligation imposes upon him." - Michael Gorra, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(U)nlike Ishiguro's earlier novels, this one never points us to the reality we're supposed to read through the narrator's distortions. At the same time, it never actually renounces realism." - Joan Acocella, The New Yorker

  • "(T)he book has many virtues: it is surely developed and extended; it is full of ingenious variation; it builds to an admirable and satisfying climax. Its virtues, in short, are all architectural ones. It starts to present a problem when we look at the voice, the sentences, which, in the context, will not do at all. (...) The single problem with the book is the prose, which (...) is so lacking in local colour as to be entirely inappropriate to the task in hand. One can't only admire a book's structure." - Philip Hensher, The Observer

  • "Plot, characters and dialogue, however, tend to get buried under Ishiguro's monolithic command of the language. (...) (I)n When We Were Orphans when Ishiguro allows his style to recede so that the story can take over, it sometimes feels like the Creamsicle has fallen off and you're left holding the stick. (...) The reason to read the book is Ishiguro's gorgeous, perhaps matchless, prose. And that's more than enough until (maybe with his next novel) Ishiguro manages to build a fictional vessel that can contain his formidable command of both the architectonic and the surreal." - Gavin McNett, Salon

  • "Somehow, Ishiguro has achieved a disturbing balance between omission and intense, immediate action as seen through the wrong end of a telescope, where details, however complete, are misunderstood. (...) Ishiguro is stretching to new limits our ability to trust that a storyteller will take us someplace astounding. It's as if the author were inventing a new kind of minimalism right before our eyes." - Brian Bouldrey, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "As the story proceeds, the mystery of life itself comes under Ishiguro's magnifying glass. And, of course, the tension and wonder of it all is whipped up by the author's extraordinary seductive prose style: precise, controlled, cautious and as snug as the armchairs in the detective's Kensington flat." - Andrew Barrow, The Spectator

  • "Ein rührendes Buch, das vom Leser hellhörige Geduld erfordert, um sein Raffinement voll entfalten zu können." - Joachim Kronsbein, Der Spiegel

  • "You seldom read a novel that so convinces you it is extending the possibilities of fiction. Ishiguro's abandonment of realism is not a defection from reality, but the contrary. Reality, as current novelistic conventions depict it, is external fact plus interior monologue. But we no longer believe in these separate entities. We know that how we see determines what is seen. Ishiguro's inextricable fusion of memory, imagination and dream takes us down into the labyrinth of reality which realism has simplified." - John Carey, The Sunday Times

  • "Ishiguro is a master at evoking unsettling moods, but When We Were Orphans comes to seem more tantalizing than fulfilling, a whodunit with no real who or it." - Paul Gray, Time

  • "When We Were Orphans is as intricately plotted as a conventional mystery novel, with an ending that is both unexpected and plausible. (...) It may be that for some readers the strain of suspending disbelief will be too much, and the intricately devised house of cards will collapse into improbability. (...) For all its ellipses and evasions, When We Were Orphans will linger in the mind as an often fascinating, imaginative work of surpassing intelligence and taste." - Joyce Carol Oates, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(E)motionally saturated." - Carol Memmott, USA Today

  • "With his new novel, When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro seeks to reconcile the cloistered technique of his early works with the liberties of The Unconsoled and perhaps it's no surprise that his results should be profoundly mixed." - Benjamin Anastas, The Village Voice

  • "With his characteristic finesse, Mr. Ishiguro infuses what seems like a classic adventure story with an ineffable tinge of strangeness. (...) (E)ven as Mr. Ishiguro exposes the danger of his hero's well-meaning illusions, he also manages to suggest that it is the persistence of our childhood fantasies that engenders our desire for a better world." - Merle Rubin, Wall Street Journal

  • "When We Were Orphans is intelligent and arresting, but in the end Ishiguro takes on more than he can handle. When the book moves from England to China, when Ishiguro brings to the fore the themes he has carefully nurtured, events and people become too programmatic and, at times, implausible. (...) One can admire the intelligence and ingenuity of the exercise, as indeed I do, yet can wish as well that its heart were as large as its brain." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • "Am Ende wird beinahe nichts wieder gut. Darauf ist man gefasst, in all diesen Büchern bleiben wir gefangen unter der Schädeldecke des Helden, durch die von der Welt nur ein Rauschen dringt. Christopher, so scheint es, hat sich vorgenommen, noch einmal zu versuchen, es mit dieser Welt aufzunehmen. Aber es ist keine Aussicht, die das Gefühl von Herbstlichkeit vertreibt, mit dem man das Buch beiseite legt." - Susanne Mayer, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, When we were Orphans, is sustained by the firm voice of Christopher Banks, its narrator. Banks is an odd fellow and he recounts an odd tale, but he speaks with confidence, trying to maintain control of a world that continues to disintegrate around him, certain at least of his goal. His confidence is misguided, as the reader senses from the beginning, but his account is a quite fascinating journey of discovery.
       The novel is divided into seven parts, six progressing chronologically from 1930 to 1937, while the last is set in 1958. Despite each part being set on a particular day ("24th July 1930" is the first) and in a particular place (London and the Cathay Hotel, Shanghai) the book is one of reminiscences, a constant looking back in order to fit together a puzzle that dominates Banks' life. The book is full of memories and things thought forgotten, carefully dredged up and considered as Banks cautiously recounts his life-story.
       Banks is a detective, and the great mystery in his life is the disappearance of his parents. An Englishman, he spent his childhood in Shanghai. His father worked for one of the large English companies with a presence there, Morganbrook and Byatt, and his mother was a social activist of sorts, railing against the opium trade and the insidious harm it was causing to the native population.
       (Note that there has been some fuss about the identity of the company at which father Banks worked. Originally Ishiguro identified it as Butterfield and Swire -- a real company (and the predecessor of present-day Swire Pacific). Swire Pacific apparently (and justifiably) objected to being portrayed as a company founded on the riches made in the opium trade, and it seems they were able to cow author and publisher into changing the name: the company is called "Morganbrook and Byatt" in the American edition. Readers are, of course, welcome to cross out "Morganbrook and Byatt" in their copies of the book and substitute the original name.)
       The books begins in the calm of England, as Banks first recounts the time shortly after he graduated from Cambridge and he moved to London, certain of his calling: to become a detective. "My intention was to combat evil -- in particular, evil of the insidious, furtive kind". It is this type evil that hangs over much of the book. There is mention of a first acquaintance with Sarah Hemmings, another lost figure (and also an orphan) who is, essentially, the love of his life but never becomes his life-companion. Like a shadow she remains a presence over the years, coming to the fore at several significant junctures.
       Slowly Banks' childhood unfolds. He has one close friend in Shanghai, a Japanese boy named Akira, but otherwise finds himself generally an outsider, often the butt of jokes or schoolboy pranks. Banks remains an outsider all his life, a detective dispassionately peering into various (often dark) worlds. He is hailed for his deeds and recognized for his talents but never really made to feel welcome. Only in Shanghai, as a child, did he feel truly at home.
       Even that idyll was shattered, first by the disappearance of his father, then of his mother. Ishiguro expertly builds up to these two turning points, as Banks is slow to admit what happened on these two occasions. They are clearly the central, devastating moments in young Christopher's life, and the novel revolves around his continuing need to try to resolve his parents' fates. Never believing they are dead he is committed to finding them -- a quest that veers between the plausible and the completely unrealistic. Even as a child he and his friend Akira would act out what he calls "narratives" concerning his father's disappearance, suggesting the need for fiction to drown out fact. Banks is never completely able to let go of the narrative he has written for himself -- central to which is the knowledge that his parents are still alive. Banks is such a grounded character -- punctilious, dutiful, cautious, even prudent -- that the turns his search ultimately takes are all the more effective.
       From the shady figure of Uncle Philip, his amah Mei Li, and Inspector Kung a number of other characters fill out the early part of Banks' story, and some of them resurface at later points. Sarah Hemmings, too, continues to play a role, while the world around suffers through the 1930s. Banks also becomes the guardian of a girl who tragically lost her parents, the closest he comes to getting a family.
       The truth behind his parents' disappearance lies in Shanghai, and Banks must ultimately return there -- though it is perhaps no coincidence that he does so only after learning Sarah Hemmings means to go there. Answers are not easy to come by in war-torn Shanghai, and the world there is not quite as Banks would like to see it. "This city defeats you," former Inspector Kung says, both as excuse and warning. Banks tries to shape the ugly reality he faces to his expectations and needs as he proceeds. Shanghai is at war, Japanese troops everywhere, but Banks forces his way through in search of his goal.
       One significant character from Banks' youth appears to crop up in the guise of a soldier in Shanghai in 1937, and Banks saves him. A majority of reviewers who mention this incident apparently believe the figure to be who Banks' believes it to be, while others interpret Banks' identification essentially as mere wishful thinking. It seemed clear to us that the person is not who Banks' believes it to be, and his misidentification is just another symptom of his losing grip on reality (or rather, of his insistence on seeing the world as he believes it is and should be).
       Answers are found, but Banks' enchanted world does, in the end, shatter. "It's a miracle it survived so long," he is told. It is also no wonder that the last part of the novel is then set more than twenty years later, after enough time has passed for him acknowledge the truth.
       Ishiguro has crafted an impressive novel. The strong, controlled writing conveys Banks' demeanor (and his fragility) exceptionally well. The story itself is also a strong one, with a number of striking scenes and unexpected twists. And still, the novel does not satisfy completely. Banks' as much-praised detective does not fully convince (as few of his exploits are explained in sufficient detail). The deference shown him is also difficult to credit in certain scenes, even given the entirely subjective point of view (since Banks narrates the tale).
       When we were Orphans is a fine, honest, earnest book, with some exceptional stylistic touches. Ishiguro is very much in command of his subject, and that impresses. It is an interesting -- even a consuming -- read, but not a wholly exhilarating one.

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When we were Orphans: Reviews: Kazuo Ishiguro: Other books by Kazuo Ishiguro under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954 and moved to Great Britain when he was five. He won the Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day, has received an OBE, and was named Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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