Novel: When We Were Orphans

by look i have opinions

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in 2000 by Faber and Faber; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

313 pages, saith Wikipedia

I was deeply invested in this book when I started reading. A riff on old-fashioned detective stories, plus Ishiguro-style meditations on memory and self-deception, seemed like about as much fun as I could ask for. Then I got to the transition point—I think it’s when Banks first returns to Shanghai—and realized I was in for a long stretch of Unconsoled-style dream-life. I waited impatiently for the original story to be resolved, but you can’t resolve semi-realistic tension with dream logic. And Banks, who had been likable and easy to relate to, became basically like Ryder in The Unconsoled: a knot of neuroses and literary themes, untrustworthy, unrecognizable. Eventually the dreamlike section ended and the plot stuff got resolved, and there were genuinely moving moments as well. But the fun never came back. The dreamlikeness never got explained either.

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Edited to add that I think Ishiguro is trying to find a way to combine the dreamlike mode of The Unconsoled with the semi-realistic mode of his first three novels. It seems like a reasonable thing to attempt, and it makes sense to nest the dream stuff in the center of the more realistic storyline, but it just doesn’t work for me. I think the problem is that, while I can accept a dreamlike story on its own terms, I can’t accept it in such a realistic context. The dream stuff lowers the stakes, brings the “real” story to a halt, nullifies any stable sense of worldbuilding and thereby kills suspense, et cetera.

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