The Book Club

When We Were Orphans

Greetings Book Clubbers:

Since this is a special Lightning Round edition of book club, with brief dispatches from several correspondents, I’m going to skip part of the normal duty of the leadoff man. I’ll let readers go elsewhere  for an explanation of the (complicated) plot of Orphans, which has been laid out in great detail in many reviews. For now it’s enough to say that it’s a ‘30s-style British detective story whose central mystery concerns the disappearance of the narrator’s parents and whose action largely takes place in the smoky exoticism of pre-war, pre-Communist Shanghai.

Instead, I’ll approach this “who won the debate?” style. The same reviews that listed the twists and turns of the plot established a wide range of reaction to the book. One camp says that the book is a sad letdown from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day–or too derivatively reminiscent of The Unconsoled. (I’ve read the first but not the second. Either of you guys have an opinion on the “derivative” complaint?) Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times said it was disappointing” and “ragged.” Others have raved that it’s a masterpiece whose few minor quirks increase its interest. I heard an unusually long and detailed review on Fresh Air today that was clearly in the enthusiasts’ camp.

I’m with the enthusiasts. I’ll kick off the lightning round by saying that I think the book is terrific and suggesting a few reasons why.

Narrator’s tone: The arty, lit-crit term for Ishiguro’s device in this book is the “unreliable narrator.” They didn’t use that term when Jim Thompson did something similar in his pulp classic The Killer Inside Me, or when Anita Loos took the same approach (comic variety) with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. What’s impressive in each of these cases is the creation of a narrator who clearly understands himself less well than he lets the reader do, thanks to the clues he drops. Sustaining this dual consciousness is no small feat. An artless author will seem to be laughing at the deluded narrator, along with the readership, while the artful one makes the narrator’s self-image plausible on its own terms.

Ishiguro’s handling of this challenge is artful in the extreme (as it was in Remains). By any measure, the central character of this book is plain nuts–I’ll save illustrations for the next round. But moment by moment his world proceeds on a lucid, rational-seeming basis, and the author never seems to be ridiculing him.

Atmosphere: There is a reason people read spy or detective stories, even ones by big-time writers like Ishiguro or Graham Greene. Actually, there are two reasons. The minor one is the satisfaction of “procedural” tales–ones that turn on the expert practices of the police, the spies, the investigators. To pick up a book by Elmore Leonard or John Le Carré is to expect immersion in a world with a certain predictable logic. (Guy steals the money from a drug deal; guy has got to be tracked down and killed.) The major reason is transport in a larger sense to exotic realms. The Raj Quartet was set up as a mystery but was satisfying mainly for evoking its colonial world; same with Anthony Burgess’ three-novel portrait of old Malaya, The Long Day Wanes. (Or Somerset Maugham’s Rain, or any of Greene’s “entertainments,” and on and on.)

Orphans holds up well on this score. Pre-war Shanghai is, for me, about as darkly romantic a locale as can be imagined–think of Empire of the Sun. When I first saw the city, in the mid-1980s, its main buildings were still those from the 1930s, when the foreigners lived in a lush residential enclave and opium dens were everywhere. Orphans renders this very well, in both its idyllic (for foreigners) pre-war variant and its hellish wartime aspect.

Suspense: OK, the plot had some odd turns, but I never wanted to stop reading.

Genuine sentiment: This book is all about restraint and understatement and self-delusion. But the action turns on a young boy who has lost his parents and spends his adult life looking for them. I found this genuinely affecting. An early scene was almost unbearably sad. The narrator, as a young boy, is about to be shipped back from Shanghai to England because his parents are gone. In pleading to stay, he sets up his future career as a detective–and expresses any child’s desire to think that the world has rules.

He tells the man about to send him off: “Because you see, sir, the detectives are working extremely hard to find my mother and father. And they’re the very best detectives in Shanghai. I think they’re bound to find them soon.”

The man says, yes, certainly, but off you go.

“But you see, sir, excuse me. But you see, the detectives looking for my parents. They’re the very best detectives.”

Maybe you guys will find this manufactured pathos–the way James Agee’s A Death in the Family seems to me in retrospect (though it was very sad when I read it). I thought it was powerful, and I loved the book.

Agree? Disagree? Would you tell friends, as I have, to read the book?