Always one for mucking in

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I'm on a major Ishiguro bender. Since I wrote a few weeks ago about his newest novel, Never Let Me Go, my enthusiasm has only grown; in fact, I just finished When We Were Orphans, which was every bit as intriguing as the other three of his I've read (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World).

As always, the act of narration takes front and center position in When We Were Orphans - I think Ishiguro has got to be the master of using the unreliable (or at least highly subjective) narrator to great effect. In The Remains of the Day there are some scenes that truly take the breath away with their ability to juggle multiple subjectivities while still telling a story that, while multi-layered, is riveting on its most basic level as well. So, for example, there is a scene in which Miss Kenton, the semi-impetuous housekeeper, comes to "bother" Stevens in his study while he's reading a novel, and there is a moment of acute sexual tension between them, except that Stevens (the first-person voice) both refuses to acknowledge such things as "sexuality" to his readers, and may not even understand himself the attraction he felt. In addition, the entire episode is told in flashback, with the past Stevens holding a different set of attitudes and opinions toward the events than the present Stevens. There is also a plotline in the present day which is influencing the moods of Stevens the narrator, and past embarrassment about the novel in question, which adds a certain huffiness to the demeanor of the man, both past and present. Through all of these prismatic narrative challenges, Ishiguro manages to tell a story that is elegant and affecting, as well as communicating, through the reticent and muddled eyes of Stevens, a clear portrait of Miss Kenton's motivations and emotions. No mean feat, obviously.

In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's trademark unreliable narrator is used to excellent advantage in the way that the novel plays off of the detective genre, creating an amazing experience for the reader by turning the whole idea of a whodunit on its head. Usually, the detective in any given mystery novel is the ultimate word in veracity: if he or she says it, you can believe it. Extreme examples of this phenomenon are many of Sherlock Holmes' cases, in which Holmes professes to know the solution to the case before he and Watson even start investigating - he's more just trying to tie up a few loose ends, and then he'll reveal everything to us.

But Christopher Banks, the ostensibly great detective in Ishiguro's novel, is wildly unreliable, constantly overlooking the obvious, insisting on the ludicrous, and attempting to paint a picture of himself that's at odds with the memories of seemingly every person he runs across in the course of the novel. Over and over, although he insists on his own social acumen, he meets old acquaintances and classmates who remember him as "a miserable loner" or "an odd duck" - claims to which he takes startled exception ("You must have me mixed up with someone else, old fellow. I was always one for mucking in."). Likewise, when he remembers or encounters anyone who expresses compassion about his orphanhood (his parents are kidnapped when he is a child), he reacts with brusque annoyance.

These character quirks are rendered mysterious rather than absurd or amusing, by the fact that there are also people who do seem to take Banks seriously - he's not simply a deluded maniac believing himself to be a great detective. There are instances that seem to corroborate almost positively certain claims that Banks makes at one time or another, and other passages where he does seem genuinely perceptive and honest, balancing out his more outlandish moments. The interplay between these elements leaves the reader floating along on a superbly-crafted bed of quicksand, always unsure quite what to believe, which events Banks has reported accurately, and why or in what ways he has been inaccurate. Banks' own frustrated description of the citizens of Shanghai could equally well be a description of his own narrative style:

"People here seem determined at every opportunity to block one's view. No sooner has one entered a room or stepped out of a car than someone or other will have smilingly placed himself right within one's line of vision, preventing the most basic perusal of one's surroundings. Often as not, the offending person is one's very host or guide of that moment..."

Generally, murder mysteries are only interesting until the detective reveals the solution, pointed out carefully by all the clues. After that, all the ends have been tied up neatly and the reader is no longer held to the story. But in this case, the novel remains fascinating long after finishing it, because the reader is never quite sure what actually happened, what motivated the characters, or, more importantly for the book itself, the larger ramifications of those events. Not that this uncertainty is ever down to poor writing or simple lack of character development - far from it. Instead, it is as if the possible realities of Banks' life are refracted through the prism of his perception, and Ishiguro somehow manages to communicate many interwoven possibilities via one impressive narration, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions or simply wander forever among the potential choices.

Like Ishiguro's other novels, When We Were Orphans has much to say about British and Japanese imperialism - in this case, the British occupation and Japanese invasion of Shanghai and mainland China in the first half of the twentieth century. Being far from an expert on the history of foreign aggression in eastern China, I can't break down the political allegory in any detail, but I do think that Ishiguro paints a brilliant portrait of the surreal self-involvement of the occupying British society, still putting on dinner parties and hosting events while a war rages around them. Christopher Banks' own insistence that finally "solving the case" of his parents' disappearance will somehow bring an end to the Sino-Japanese conflict is an excellent metaphor for the egregiously inflated self-importance of the declining British Empire. And the scene in which Banks stumbles upon his childhood home, now almost unrecognizable and occupied by a Chinese family who have spent years dreading his return, is a poignant and bizarre reminder of the literal effects of an "occupying force." But not only do these scenes make for fascinating political commentary; they are also gripping and beautifully told on a literal level, and the atmospheric prose contributes to a craftsmanly web of suspense surrounding Banks' narration.

When We Were Orphans is what I always wanted mystery novels to be: intriguing, insightful, ambiguous, atmospheric and amazingly well-written, ending with some ends tied in surprising places, and some still dangling enticingly in the reader's mind. I've heard that the next Ishiguro novel on my shelf, The Unconsoled, takes ambiguity and strangeness to a whole other level, and I'm delighted at the prospect of continuing and expanding my Ishigurophilia. I'm sure y'all will hear about it when I do.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography