Book Review: When We Were Orphans

I’ve chosen a highly recommended novel, set in one of the countries Phileas Fogg visited, in Jules Verne’s Around The World In Eighty Days, to review.

The third stop on the journey is Hong Kong; I couldn’t get hold of a book set in Hong Kong, so I read When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is set in mostly in China and a little in Hong Kong.

Christopher Banks, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, has dedicated his life to detective work but behind his successes lies one unsolved mystery: the disappearance of his parents when he was a small boy living in the International Settlement in Shanghai.

Moving between England and China in the inter-war period, the book, encompassing the turbulence and political anxieties of the time and the crumbling certainties of a Britain deeply involved in the opium trade in the East, centres on Banks’s idealistic need to make sense of the world through the small victories of detection and his need to understand finally what happened to his mother and father.

As I’ve already alluded to, I found When We Were Orphans quite dull and it was incredibly difficult to maintain reading it. The plot seemed quite slow, and there wasn’t much description to set the scene of Chinese locations. This was disappointing, as I was hoping to experience something of the culture in which the book is set – as I had when reading A Passage To India and Death Comes As The End.

The narrative structure was another big disappointment for me. As a reasonably new fan of both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, I thought I would really enjoy this newer book to join the mystery genre. However, Mr Banks didn’t seem to make any breakthroughs in the case and he spent more time reminiscing over past cases then he did telling us what he was doing at the present.

Furthermore, the use of repeated flashbacks – a memory within a memory within a memory (#Inception) – made me forget what was supposed to be happening.

However, on a more positive note, I thought Mr Banks’ childhood nickname, Puffin, was absolutely adorable. Also, the scenes towards the end of the book were more interesting, because I got to experience the horrors of the Chinese/Japanese warfront and that provided a sense of realism.

Overall though, I am disappointed with this read, and would not have finished if I hadn’t chosen to feature it on my blog this week.

– Judith

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