Readers of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro will be familiar with the muffled misery and cool, clear prose he perfected in The Remains of the Day and then rejected for the surreal paranoia of his fourth novel, The Unconsoled. And they will welcome his latest effort, When We Were Orphans (Faber; 313 pages), for its fusion of Ishiguro's talents and techniques as he explores another lost world -- the realm of childhood.
The novel opens quietly in the London of 1930. The narrator, Banks, was brought to England as a small boy after the disappearance of his parents from their home in Shanghai. He has received a substantial inheritance and a privileged education but remains unnatural in British society, "an odd bird." Not that he cares, he assures the reader. His vocation is detective work and he aims to solve the ultimate mystery: his parents' fate.
But Banks is ill-equipped to piece together his past. Despite a magnifying glass and precocious powers of analysis he is not a reliable witness: the filter for his evidence is childhood memory, in all its color and confusion. He recalls the "curious little episodes" of his Shanghai childhood, his beautiful, brave mother and her fight against an opium trade supported by her husband's company. He remembers his Japanese friend, Akira, and the detective games they invented after the disappearance of Banks' father. And he relives his abandonment in a Shanghai market by family friend "Uncle" Philip, followed by a return to a bolted door, a hysterical maid and an empty home.
The literal and emotional clues are in place for the crime, and Banks is impatient to return to his past. When he arrives in the Shanghai of 1937, he plays out his own drama against the backdrop of war, uncovering a psychological wasteland of fallen idols and shattered beliefs amid the devastation of an invaded city.
When We Were Orphans can be read on several levels. The detective story and historical themes of colonial corruption and war encase the abstract heart of the novel -- a Freudian fairy tale about a painful transition to adulthood. Ishiguro melds personal and political crises to create moments of unnerving suspense. The intricate plot lurches and jolts through Banks' repressed subconscious with lucid symbolism. Though we may laugh at Banks' childlike impatience and self-importance, we don't mock it. His pain is red and raw.
Ishiguro is a generous writer -- compassionate to his characters and respectful of his readers. When We Were
Orphans is a rich, satisfying read, clear yet complex. But it hurts. The throb and ache of Banks' wound -- his inability to set right as an adult what he could not as a child -- leaves a lingering melancholy.