What intrigued me most about When We Were Orphans was a fuzziness that begins with language: Christopher’s voice feels a bit formal, wordy, and distant, even in suspenseful allegorical action scenes during the Battle of Shanghai, when he’s trying to reach a house where he believes his mother is being held. He’s already missed his chance to leave the country with a woman who’s invited him to run away with her… she’s an orphan, too, and their attraction is a strange one that seems more predicated on aloneness than anything else. As Christopher sums up in the book’s last paragraphs:
But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.
Most of the book describes Christopher’s chases after various shadows: from playing games in Shanghai with his neighbor Akira, a boy from Japan, to research in London about the Shanghai from which his parents disappeared, to the on-the-ground search for his mother when he’s an adult. With those chases comes the creation of personal myths. Those begin in childhood, too, with Akira touchingly reinventing the kidnappers as people who “took great care to ensure my father’s comfort and dignity in all our dramas” during the boys’ role play rescues of Christopher’s father. Christopher describes many aspects of his friendship with Akira in tremendous detail, including an episode where they take something from a servant’s room and dialogues in which Akira calls Christopher “old chap.”
Of course it turns out that not all Christopher’s memories are quite right—though some are surprisingly helpful—and being sentimental gets a bad rap toward the end of the book. But memories are transformative for Christopher, who took on his profession because he felt he had a responsibility to find justice: he sometimes sounds a little like he thinks of himself as a loner superhero. He even carries a magnifying glass. And he says detectives have “little inclination to mingle with one another, let alone with ‘society’ at large.”
Though I enjoyed When We Were Orphans for the almost ridiculously consistent voice Ishiguro creates for Christopher, insights into memory (fuzzy or otherwise), and Christopher’s lifelong existential wanderings, those good technical qualities occasionally made the book feel a little too surgically correct, too hermetically sealed within Christopher’s mind to be as interesting as it might have been.
If you’re looking for a straight-ahead international detective novel, you might want to try D.A. Mishani’s The Missing File, translated from the original Hebrew by Steven Cohen. Mishani’s police procedural novel tracks Avraham Avraham’s work on the case of a missing teenage boy: Avraham is (yet another) heavy-smoking bachelor detective with a territorial streak, and Mishani also gives him a penchant for watching Law and Order and a passion for analyzing detective novels. The Missing File moves along at a decent pace though a detour to Belgium feels a little like it was pasted in for a very specific reason and I thought a strange schoolteacher, one of the most developed characters in the book, caught a bit too much of Mishani’s attention. The novel is absorbing enough though, with some surprises at the end, and the narrative voice is spare in Cohen’s translation, which generally reads smoothly. The back cover of my book, by the way, calls Mishani “a literary scholar specializing in the history of detective literature,” which probably helps explain some of Avraham’s ideas on solving real-life and fictional crimes.
Up Next: Arnon Grunberg’s Tirza, a book I think I’d describe as a combination of “stupendous” and “stupefying.” In a good way. Then Thorvald Steen’s Lionheart.
Disclaimers: I received a copy of The Missing File from publisher HarperCollins, thank you!