When 9-year-old Christopher Banks's father--a British businessman involved in the opium trade--disappears from the family home in Shanghai, the boy and his friend Akira play at being detectives: "Until in the end, after the chases, fist-fights and gun-battles around the warren-like alleys of the Chinese districts, whatever our variations and elaborations, our narratives would always conclude with a magnificent ceremony held in Jessfield Park, a ceremony that would see us, one after another, step out onto a specially erected stage ... to greet the vast cheering crowds."
But Christopher's mother also disappears, and he is sent to live in England, where he grows up in the years between the world wars to become, he claims, a famous detective. His family's fate continues to haunt him, however, and he sifts through his memories to try to make sense of his loss. Finally, in the late 1930s, he returns to Shanghai to solve the most important case of his life. But as Christopher pursues his investigation, the boundaries between fact and fantasy begin to evaporate. Is the Japanese soldier he meets really Akira? Are his parents really being held in a house in the Chinese district? And who is Mr. Grayson, the British official who seems to be planning an important celebration? "My first question, sir, before anything else, is if you're happy with the choice of Jessfield Park for the ceremony? We will, you see, require substantial space."
In When We Were Orphans Kazuo Ishiguro uses the conventions of crime fiction to create a moving portrait of a troubled mind, and of a man who cannot escape the long shadows cast by childhood trauma. Sherlock Holmes needed only fragments--a muddy shoe, cigarette ash on a sleeve--to make his deductions, but all Christopher has are fading recollections of long-ago events, and for him the truth is much harder to grasp. Ishiguro writes in the first person, but from the beginning there are cracks in Christopher's carefully restrained prose, suggestions that his version of the world may not be the most reliable. Faced with such a narrator, the reader is forced to become a detective too, chasing crumbs of truth through the labyrinth of Christopher's memory.
Ishiguro has never been one for verbal pyrotechnics, but the unruffled surface of this haunting novel only adds to its emotional power. When We Were Orphans is an extraordinary feat of sustained, perfectly controlled imagination, and in Christopher Banks the author has created one of his most memorable characters. --Simon Leake