When We Were Orphans

Typical of Kazuo Ishiguro’s themes, When We Were Orphans, which is set mostly in the 1930s England while also hovering over to Shanghai, deals with the diminishing of one’s memories and the protagonist, Christopher Banks, makes a conscious attempt to try and recollect them and tell his story.

Through these recollections we see how he lived in Shanghai and how he had to come back home to England due to his parents going missing.

Part One of When We Were Orphans establishes the setting and the fluctuating narrative where the narrator, a famous British detective, is telling the story through his memories.

Part Two revolves around his own childhood he spend in Shanghai and his adventures with his childhood friend, Akira who is from Japan but stays, like Christopher, in the International Settlement of Shanghai. We see how the two friends built their own peculiar narratives and dramas during their playtime and one major anecdote, where the two kids demonise one of their servants and steal one of his lotions in the full glory of childhood bravery, is intertwined with Christopher’s father going missing.


The other sections of the book narrate his rise to becoming a detective in London and his encounters with many of his old friends, guardians and the curious, Miss Sarah Hemmings.

The protagonist, Christopher Banks, at the beginning comes across as a rational, deductive individual, which perhaps suits his profession, and he is one who muses over his actions and memories of the past with precision along with laying bare the facts. It seems interesting that the a detective could deal with the contradictory, personal and subjective natures of memories with such logic. Later on, instances of his heightened anger was another aspect that was jarring with that calculative mind.

Though the protagonist is a world famous, British detective, hardly do we see many instances where he is solving cases. The cases are akin to markers for him to remember a particular incident in his life and then narrate them.

Thus, When We Were Orphans, is not your typical detective novel. It does however, have one particular case at its heart and that is Banks’ search for his missing parents but that comes much later in the story so much so that the main focus could actually simply be how he records his memories and reminisces in almost a pseudo-diary format. We see his growth from his childhood to the present where he somehow becomes more and more involved in the politics of that time with a looming war on the horizon with its epicentre in China which is what finally compels Banks to revisit Shanghai to solve that one case that is close to his heart.

His trip there brings with it its own set of childhood memories from an unexpected visit to his childhood home to the constant need to search for his childhood friend, Akira, in the faces of the people there.

The ending was a bit of both, expected and unexpected, because of the random twist that Ishiguro embeds at the end. The most heartwarming yet heart wrenching scene that comes in the end is something that I cannot even reveal since it would be a spoiler.

Instead, I would like to mention that When We Were Orphans could easily be classified as a bildungsroman novel along with being an unconventional detective novel.

The book is very British, especially at the beginning, in its essence, with the tea, sconces, dreary London weather and other typical elements that are often associated with England in our imaginations.

The other aspects that are commented upon throughout particularly in those parts where the book travels to Shanghai, is the English policy of trading opium to China. We see how Banks’ mother was against opium trade and questioned its morality. At the end as well, when Banks returns to China, we see the politics of that time with the Japanese forces invading China, Chiang Kai-Shek’s policies against communism among others.

When We Were Orphans is then a wholesome novel having several themes and categories (be it detective, historical, or bildungsroman) meshed into one to create an intimately personal story that is also a commentary on the way we live today.

  • Connecting When We Were Orphans to other novels:
    • The only other story or novel that I have read that deals with China’s opium addiction is the Ibis Trilogy written by Amitav Ghosh. Read the reviews here.
    • While reading this novel, When We Were Orphans, I realised that it is like how the Death Note manga creators should write a back story about its world famous detective, L. I always thought about how When We Were Orphans could easily shift into the story about the world famous, mysterious and witty detective, L Lawliet of Death Note, especially the Britishness of the story (L lived in England for a while at the Wammy’s Orphanage) and the fact that the protagonist of Then We Were Orphans, is also an orphan like L. Many fans were left high and dry after L’s death and complained about how little they know about L and his past. Perhaps this book could fill that gap! Though I really cannot imagine L to be that British! Read my review of Death Note here!

To conclude, I would definitely say to go grab a copy of this book whether you are a Ishiguro fan or a detective novel fan!

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