Kazuo Ishiguro 2000. When We Were Orphans. London: Faber and Faber. 313 pp.
What a very good novel.
Between the wars, English companies are profiting from the opium trade between India and China; an ex-patriot Englishman works for one such company, his wife campaigns against the trade; both parents disappear in Shanghai; their young son returns to foster care in London. He returns to Shanghai as an adult just before the outbreak of the Second World War in an attempt to solve the case. By now he has become the successful detective he always aspired to be, and to boot has his own foster daughter in his care in London while he is chasing at snail’s pace, Sarah, yet another orphan, also now in Shanghai. He cannot admit that Sarah is his love and so she has fallen into a marriage of convenience. The Koumintang, communist Chinese and Japanese are in a war that is a harbinger and microcosm of the imminent atrocities of the the Second World War.
Using these ingredients, Kazuo Ishiguro allows the novel to unfold in layers, revealing his characters in a very measured way (if one were to strive hard to find a point of criticism, the pace occasionally seems almost ponderous). All this talk of orphans is just a superficial distraction. Like The Buried Giant and Remains of the Day, this is about how the past is remembered and how that memory deceives when we allow it. And it is also a detective story of sorts, or at least it has a resolution in that vein which relies on a plot intricately woven alongside the stories and failings of the main characters.
When We Were Orphans was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, which was won by The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. That must be quite some novel.