Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, December 27, 2010

"When We Were Orphans" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is freaking BRILLIANT. I may be the last person in the world to have figured that out, but that doesn't make it any less true.

After the last couple of stinkers, I decided it was time to choose a book I'd been promised was excellent. I'm elated to report I was not a bit disappointed. It's about time I came across another Must Read.

Ishiguro writes the story of Christopher Banks, an Englishman who spent much of his childhood in early twentieth century Shanghai but was then sent to England as an orphan at the age of nine. It's been his lifelong dream to become a detective, and once he reaches this goal he travels back to China to determine what really happened to his parents.

Banks is an adult as he tells the story, but important childhood events in Shanghai are woven into the narrative as memories, made all the more real by their elusive and possibly unreliable nature. He readily admits that his perceptions may very well differ from reality, but his perceptions are, after all, what his memories are composed of. After he returns to China, it becomes evident that it's not only his impressions of the past that may be unreliable; his obsessive qualities taint even his grasp of the present.

Ishiguro's choice of words is so precise. Do you ever find yourself mentally editing as you read, thinking you would have used a different word or phrase? I didn't do that with Ishiguro. His prose is subtle but beautifully descriptive, with an elegant simplicity that belies the deft and clever writing. Ishiguro never seems to be trying too hard, but he doesn't have to.

Of course, no part of this book was boring. But the way the tension subtly built, I reached a point where I had to stop my eyes from racing ahead. I tried to force myself to read slowly, to savor the story. When I noticed I only had about thirty pages remaining, I actually put the book down and stopped reading for a bit to prolong the inevitable and avoid finishing the book too soon.

Allow me to pause mid-gush and concede that this novel isn't perfect. The resolution of the mystery was a little bit Scooby Doo. (Maybe there weren't any meddling kids, and no one had a mask pulled off, but there was a sort of "it was you all along!" vibe.) But don't let that deter you in any way from reading this book. You know you thought Scooby was awesome when you were little, too.

Even with my criticism, I was surprised to read on wikipedia that this is "considered one of Ishiguro's weakest works, with Ishiguro himself saying, 'It's not my best book.'" That's actually kind of encouraging for me, though. If this is not his best, I can only imagine how good some of his others must be.

I'm here to tell you it's time to move Kazuo Ishiguro to the top of your TBR pile. I already have The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go on my wish list, but I won't need much of an excuse to add more.


Rachel said...

This has been on my TBR list for ages... I think I may have to bump it up the pile now.. your review makes me want to read it :)

Kristi said...

I haven't read this one, but now I'll have to add it to my list. I'm still waiting for Remains of the Day from my library. I did read Never Let Me Go this past July and loved it.

Stella Luce said...

I have read all his books but this one is my favourite of his and yes he is freaking brilliant....great blog..thanks for sharing on fB

Lydia of the Desert said...

I remember thinking when I read The Remains of the Day that it was like a seamless garment - a perfect work of art! Thank you for your description of this one - you've inspired me to use one of my bookstore gift cards to get a copy :D

~ Lydia in Phoenix

brideofthebookgod said...

I've read his first three and loved them but for some reason haven't read ant more. The Remains of the Day is particularly good (as is the film adaptation).

Kathy said...

Rachel and Kristi--I hope you do read it soon--I think you will love it!

Stella--thanks for your comment. It gave me a kind of Oh. What? moment. I didn't know it had been posted on fb until you mentioned it!

Lydia--"seamless garment" seems a very apt description of Ishiguro's writing. So perfect! I can't wait to read more of it.

Bride--The Unconsoled sounds like it might be the only book of his I wouldn't love (but I guess you haven't read that one, since it's not one of his first three). I haven't seen the movie adaptation of The Remains of the Day yet! But it's on my list.

Avid Reader said...

I loved Remains of the Day and thought Never Let Me Go was great too. This one is definitely going on the TBR.

mummazappa said...

I count The Remains of the Day among my top 10 fave books, but remember being very disappointed with Never Let Me Go. I've been seeing it reviewed around the blogosphere a lot lately (was it reprinted or something?) and getting positive reviews so maybe I should give it another read.

Jamie said...

I just recently read Never Let Me Go after having it on my shelves for a few years *hanging my head in shame* and i LOVED it. I'm excited to get my hands on some of his other works.

Kathy said...

AR--good to know you enjoyed those two--reinforcement for my intentions to read them!

Zap--not really sure whether NLMG was reprinted recently. Maybe it's just been kind of contagious. Every time I see a rave review on a particular book, it's not long before I see a few more bloggers reading it. Anyway,it will be interesting to see if you enjoy it more the second time around!

Jamie--I'm just like you--can't believe it took me so long to find Ishiguro and now eager for more!

Amanda said...

I can't believe you wrote this in 2011 and I finally read the book! I enjoyed it, great writing, interesting story. But I had trouble wrapping my head around him being so clueless, especially for someone who was supposedly a great detective in his career. There were many hints at there being "something wrong" with him, but nothing ever really explained. At one point I thought he might even have a physical deformity! Anyway, I did enjoy reading it and I will surely try some of his other books. But, for now I am onto The Magus!

Kathy said...

And now I can't even remember the "something wrong" that you mention! I do remember I thought the writing was amazing, though.

I hope you enjoy The Magus! Also flawed, I think, but I loved it. And, unlike when Bella assured Jessica "zero weirdness," it's ALL weirdness.