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Review: Ishiguro's latest a brilliantly written disappointment


"When We Were Orphans"
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Alfred A. Knopf
336 pages

In this story:

Deeply annoying

Solving mysteries in wartime


(CNN) -- "When We Were Orphans," Kazuo Ishiguro's fifth novel, is brilliantly written yet hugely disappointing. The narrator, Christopher "Puffin" Banks, is a megalomaniac and an excruciating bore. Born in Shanghai's International Settlement around the turn of the 20th century, Puffin is the spawn of an officer in a British trading company and an anti-opium activist. Banks' parents' marriage is strained from his mother's constant pressure on his father to renounce the company's evil opium trade, a way to gain enormous profits while keeping China's population subjugated.

Here's a question: Did Puffin's mother never ask her prospective groom what he did for a living? What on earth did they talk about on dates?


One day Puffin's Papa goes out to work and never comes back. Not long afterward, Mama disappears, too. Shocked and grief-stricken, the youngster convinces himself his parents have been kidnapped.

Banks goes to live with an aunt in England. Miraculously, he survives to adulthood without anyone braining him with a brick. He becomes a detective and gains some renown. He finds himself enmeshed in a social circle of bright young things and has a few strange encounters with an accomplishment junkie named Sarah.

Deeply annoying

As he has done in previous novels such as "An Artist of the Floating World" and "Remains of the Day," Ishiguro paints a deft, meticulously crafted portrait of a narrator whose mind roils with self-delusion and an odd, arrogant insecurity. Ishiguro lards his prose with clues hinting at the reality behind Banks' sophistry.

But "When We Were Orphans" breaks free from the rigorous, structured interaction between what the narrator tells us (and himself) and what the author reveals through the narrator's delusions -- qualities that gave Ishiguro's early works the feel of highly literary detective fiction.

Ishiguro's fourth novel, "The Unconsoled," broke from that successful formula and took a more dreamlike approach. "When We Were Orphans" seems an odd stab at meshing Ishiguro's mastery of high-toned mystery with his increasing desire to venture into murkier, more dubious territory.

Although his writing remains subtle and evocative, "When We Were Orphans" is, at bottom, a deeply annoying work. Plot twists strain credulity, loose ends dangle, and jump-cuts between realism and surrealism shred one's patience. The novel's vacillation between hazy childhood memories and frankly weird scenarios in Banks' present (Can this really be happening? Is he crazy?), along with the narrator's constant droning about his faulty recall, nearly beat one to death with the point. Or points: Memory distorts reality and we all filter experiences through our own skewed perceptions. Imperialism is bad. It's probably not wise to focus on work to the extent of avoiding human connection. It's downright folly to think you can single-handedly save the world.

Solving mysteries in wartime

Banks adopts an orphan, Jennifer, with whom he develops the sort of cold, tentative relationship Ishiguro so excels at depicting. Although he claims fondness for Jennifer, Banks decides to return to Shanghai in 1937 to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearance. He realizes Jennifer will see his absence as a betrayal, but rationalizes that he might return before she even notices he's gone. She is at boarding school, after all.

Well, he's gone a good while. Shanghai in 1937 is embroiled in the struggle between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Mao's Communists. Not only that, the Japanese have invaded and there are all kinds of crazy bombings and killings going on.

None of which deters our plucky, mnemonically deprived hero. Convinced he's on the verge of finding his parents, and that the entire city of Shanghai eagerly awaits his triumph, he nevertheless decides to ditch his quest and run off to Macao with the despicable Sarah. He meets her for their escape, then promptly deserts her in a music shop.

That scene contains this unfortunate sentence: "I had perhaps expected Sarah to be standing there, but the only person present was a spindly European with a dark pointed beard sitting behind the counter."

Beards with spines? I think not, even in Shanghai during those heady times.

Christopher leaves Sarah in search of an ancient, failed, blind actor who lives across the street from the house where his parents are ostensibly imprisoned. A long, harrowing scene ensues as Christopher makes his way through a bombed-out Shanghai slum behind enemy lines. Along the way, he attempts to rescue his childhood friend, Akira (Is it really Akira?), a wounded Japanese soldier. Ishiguro ties up some of the novel's mysterious threads with a partially predictable yet utterly horrifying denouement.

There's no doubt that Ishiguro is a novelist with daunting, immense talent. At risk of blaspheming a literary god, I can only wish I had Puffin Banks' faulty memory. Then I wouldn't remember the time I wasted slogging through this tiresome book.

Kazuo Ishiguro: An Overview
Kazuo Ishiguro biography
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)

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