When We Were Orphans

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The New York Times says of Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, “his fullest achievement yet,” and I’m not quite there. While I typically agree with their assessment and I like his storytelling ability, he doesn’t ‘take me,’ in the way that a ‘fullest achievement’ should.

I realized half way through (kind of like the last two novels I read), that ‘ah yes, I’ve read this before, but many years ago.’ Ishiguro won the Booker Prize for “Remains of the Day,” so it is not surprising that I had read a second-tier classic again and yet…….

I recall aspects of the story, stage by stage, and yet I’m not grabbed, captivated, dazed, taken away for days upon end. The greatest of artists have the ability to take you away for days upon end, you don’t need a reason why, how they got you there and best of all, you make up your own excuses for anything in the ‘real world’ you may have missed as a result of your temporary escape. Alas.

An orphan myself, there were aspects of his early (not so trivial) memories of the stages he goes through after losing his parents (denial, understanding and accepting what alone means), and responding to the rest of the world sans a traditional family, not just as a post adolescent, but for the rest of his life.

The main character, Christopher, is later a celebrated and legendary detective in London, who inevitably must return to Shanghai, where he last saw his parents (kidnapped, killed, other??) to discover whatever truth remains. Ah, the truth we keep from our children in times of turmoil, disgrace or when we feel we somehow can’t unveil the news at the time….

It seems to me that the story changes slightly but the circumstances of which things are abstained rarely do. The face people hide behind is often the same face, regardless of culture, demographic or age.

As an adult, Christopher takes on a niece, who was orphaned herself at a young age, until a ‘better arrangement could be made.’ I’ve been there….by the time a better arrangement can be made, you’ve (like any child would) already established some attachment to that temporary arrangement until…….at some point, you realize and begin to understand that everything is temporary and start to plan accordingly.

There were times throughout when I felt he didn’t understand the nature of an orphan, regardless of how they got there, and it was merely inserted to add depth to a multi-cultural complicated political plot. There were other times however when he runs (quietly) because there is no other thing to do when presented with a otherwise normal situation for most, yet a painful undealt with scene for the ‘orphaned.’

Such a British moment where he approaches his orphaned niece about her ‘belongings’ which are likely lost — for good. She wears a brave face when she responds about ‘her belongings,’ – “It’s all right. I’m not upset. After all, they were just things. When you’ve lost your mother and father, you can’t care so much about things, can you?” With that, she gave her little laugh.

In fact, she means the exact opposite and we all hear it in the tone, the subsequent laugh and mourn for her. He shares with her the meaning he placed on his own things, only a handful of which were saved and sent to him months later after being sent back to England.

I get that…….all of it. Those orphaned later in life tend to place less and less importance on things, but in the interim, they may be the only things you can safely clutch onto, the only things that remind you of a love that once was present.

She shrugged in response and put her horse up to her cheek, “you have to look forward in life.” She means this but looks back for a period of daunting hours, days, weeks, months, years, that feel like a lifetime.

As Christopher stepped up to the house, he glanced behind him and aw that she was roaming about the garden once more, moving her horse in dreamy arcs through the air. (exactly where I expected her to be….then, and quietly for years to come).

I resonated here with Christopher and his niece because of my own background, but not because it was tantilizing, engaging writing. Clearly, he’s a great storyteller and this is evident, but he doesn’t ‘take me away.’

He is however a man of words — British articulation, “Ladies and Gentlemen. I can well see the situation here has grown rather trying. And I have no wish to raise false expectations at such a time.”

Yet while meticulous and descriptive to a point of boring me at times (I remember feeling rather pleased with the way my voice came out, urbane an jocular, as I said…. I managed to pronounce my name with a flourish). Oh Christopher, get on with it. I love explicit supportive language to accentuate and flatter even the smallest exchange and yet, there were times I felt he could have said a lot more with a lot less.

Sometimes this serves him and the reader, when he chooses the raw and the truth, “the three weeks I have been in Shanghai, has become a perennial source of irritation; namely the way people here seem determined at every opportunity to block one’s view.”

Then later, “the British consulate, put his broad frame before me….as we strode on towards the doorway, I noticed the rather charming way each doorman would bow and bring his white-gloved hands up together. But we were hardly past the third man when even this view was obstructed by my other host………”

Oh yes England, I remember you well and experience upon experience there. Obstructed views were the norm and so much more than the limited view of a doorman or anyone else deemed important at the time.”

The third part of the book starts to grab you, but it takes awhile to get there. It is worth reading because of his storytelling ability alone, but don’t expect to be taken away into another passage of time for days on end.

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