Rarely does a book impress me as much as When We Were Orphans has, by Kazuo Ishiguro. A tale of a young English boy growing up in the Far East, Shanghai to be precise, it is told with concision and just the right amount of clarity to drive the point home. And what a point it is too.
Christopher Banks grows up with his best friend Akira, a Japanese boy also transplanted to Shanghai. The book is based in the 30s, a volatile period by any reckoning, and both kids are strangers in a strange land. They vow to never go to England or Japan, since China is their home and all they know. But Chris’ father disappears, soon followed by his mother and he returns to England. He becomes a very famous detective who solves a lot of cases but is always drawn back to the biggest case of them all: the case of the disappearing mater et pater.
There is a dalliance with a famous social climber which leads to nothing, but comes to a head in Shanghai, when Chris finally arrives there on the ice-cold spoor of his parents. He tracks decade-old clues and his investigations force him into the frontline between Japan and China, the invader and the defender. We follow Chris through his travails, culminating in his headlong careening into a warzone filled with dismembered body parts and decaying intestines strung up like so many sausages in an abattoir. When the mystery is solved and his mother is found, the truth is so horrific that he turns away in revulsion, preferring to let matters continue on their natural course without any further intervention on his part.
Kazuo Ishiguro weaves a great tale, a tale clad in simplicity yet heavy with the twin emotions most humans succumb to, nostalgia and regret. The boys’ childhood is captured well, with each day’s ephemeral beauty described evocatively, yet succinctly. The grown Banks is very much the adult projection of the boy and his single-minded devotion to find his parents is captivating. What can I say? Read this one book if you can, this December.