Imagine a narrator-hero who tells his story without noticing how little of it he truly understands. Or rather, don't imagine such a creature, because Kazuo Ishiguro has already done so brilliantly in the figure of Stevens, the self-deluding butler-protagonist of The Remains of the Day (1989). And it seems at first as if the author is up to the same sort of trick in his new novel, When We Were Orphans (Knopf; 336 pages; $25). Christopher Banks, who has become a prominent London detective during the 1930s, displays all of Stevens' careful, fussy punctiliousness in recounting the events of his life thus far: his childhood in Shanghai, where his father worked for a British trading firm; the mysterious disappearance of both his parents--his father first, then his mother--when he was 10; and his subsequent journey to England, where he was raised by an aunt.
Banks remembers that detectives were called in to investigate when his father went missing, but he makes no conscious connection between that event and his own choice of a career, stating only that "my intention was to combat evil." As he gains renown for the cases he solves, Banks is pursued by Sarah Hemmings, an attractive socialite, but he keeps himself emotionally remote from her overtures.
Then, in 1937, Banks travels to Shanghai to investigate at last the matter of his parents, and at this point the tone of Ishiguro's novel changes abruptly. Gone is the precise realism of The Remains of the Day, replaced by the phantasmagoric fugue state that governed his subsequent novel, The Unconsoled (1995). Assuming that Banks' view of the world around him is correct, if constrained, the reader must now start wondering whether he has, without warning, completely lost his mind.
For Banks reports that members of Shanghai's international community greet him as the savior of the city, which is being torn by skirmishes between the nationalists and communists and by shelling from the Japanese. "Mr. Banks," a woman says, "do you have any idea at all how relieved we all feel now that you're finally with us?" He, in turn, assures a crowd of nervous well wishers: "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. But let me say I would not be here now if I were not optimistic about my chances of bringing this case, in the very near future, to a happy conclusion."
Things in Shanghai grow ever stranger. Sarah, now married to an elder statesman visiting the city, suddenly proposes that she and Banks run away together. "I suppose I was surprised when I heard her utter these words," he allows, but raises an objection: "The difficulty is my work here. I'll have to finish here first. After all, the whole world's on the brink of catastrophe. What would people think of me if I abandoned them all at this stage?" By this point in the novel, normal narrative logic no longer applies; after telling Sarah why he can't go with her, Banks agrees to do so. And that consent proves meaningless too. Ishiguro is a master at evoking unsettling moods, but When We Were Orphans comes to seem more tantalizing than fulfilling, a whodunit with no real who or it.
--By Paul Gray