Ishiguro has written one the best and definitely the scariest book I’ve ever read. The best was Never Let Me Go and although it’s also pretty scary, that prize goes to The Unconsoled. Has anyone out there read this one? It’s not blood-and-gore-scary, it’s nightmare-scary. Like those dreams where you run away from something and don’t leave the same place. It’s a piece of genius, but I get a bit anguished just thinking about it.

It’s because of those two books that I’ve decided to read everything that Ishiguro has ever written, even if the rest are disappointments. The Remains of the Day was amazing, but When We Were Orphans is the first that didn’t quite do it for me. I’m afraid I let myself be influenced by what Ishiguro himself though of it. He said it was not his “best book” and how can you disagree with the source?

The book is about Christopher Banks, an Englishman born in Shanghai in the early 1900s. When he was still a child, his father (an opium businessman), mysteriously disappears, followed within a few weeks by his mother. Christopher was sent away to live with his aunt in England, but that moment in his life leads him to eventually become a detective, one of the best of his time. In the late 1930s, he starts having flash memories of events he’s been blocking, so right at the brink of the Battle of Shanghai he decides to go back to China to deal with the still unsolved case of his missing parents.

When We Were Orphans was written after The Unconsoled and in both the borders between reality and a dream-like state blur. For instance, at some point Christoph becomes convinced that his parents are still being held captive at a certain house. Although this is highly unlikely, everyone accepts it as a fact. The way characters act is also positively surreal at times, like the Embassy officer who keeps telling Christopher about the details of the party he’s organizing to celebrate his parents’ return.

It’s hard to explain the feeling if you haven’t read it, except to say that it’s similar to what happens in dreams, where impossible things happen and everyone just accepts it as a given. It’s a very intellectual (and Freudian) approach to story-telling, but Ishiguro masters it.

Christopher tells the story in the first person and is very like Stevens from The Remains of the Day. They both have a certain mental image of themselves and sometimes we realize that the people around them see them differently. During those moments you see a weaker man, which inspires pity in others and the reader. It’s fascinating to follow a story inside the head of a character with such distorted views of the world, to see him deal with isolation and the possibility of happiness. Despite its surreal qualities, the resolution of the story, was (satisfyingly) grounded on reality.

When We Were Orphans is not original, but it’s still an enticing piece of work. The plot doesn’t matter, don’t let yourself be fooled by the detective and the mystery waiting to be solved. It’s all about Ishiguro’s smooth, elegant and subtle writing.


Other thoughts: A Striped Armchair (yours?)