Until the publication of his unjustly criticized fourth novel, The Unconsoled (1995), Kazuo Ishiguro was hailed as a “master” of historical realism, particularly for his depiction of the dutiful and oblivious butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day (1989). Set against an alternating historical backdrop—England before and after World War II—this stylish novel is both an elegy to a vanished way of life in the manor houses of the countryside (“To us, then,” Stevens reflects, “the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub”) and an indictment of the British class system. Stevens isn’t an unreliable narrator, exactly, just a limited one, and the simple, servile quality of the novel’s language seems appropriate to his exaggerated sense of duty. The real—in the form of history—constantly preoccupies the characters in The Remains of the Day, and their failure to find happiness is less a tragedy than it is the final justification of Ishiguro’s realist technique.
And then a funny thing happened: Ishiguro wrote The Unconsoled, a genuinely experimental novel that broke the rules of his earlier fictions (rich historical setting, narrator of limited vision) and exposed the conventions of realism for what they are—a rather shopworn bag of tricks. While no thumbnail description can do this novel justice, I will point out that its time period and setting are never explicitly named; its narrator—Ryder, a famous musician—delivers an important speech in a dressing gown, may or may not be married to Sophie, the daughter of an elderly porter at his hotel, and loves 2001: A Space Odyssey, or at least the version starring “Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner.” What can you say about a narrative that leaves all of its central questions unresolved and ends with a sumptuous breakfast buffet onboard a streetcar? Only that its author, in frustrating the realist expectations of his readers, has risked everything in order to reveal the essence of reality: a double life behind the real where darkened hallways lead to alpine fields, and the unusual lover’s plea “Let’s choose an animal” is tender and true.
With his new novel, When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro seeks to reconcile the cloistered technique of his early works with the liberties of The Unconsoled—and perhaps it’s no surprise that his results should be profoundly mixed. The first orphan of the title is our protagonist, Christopher Banks, a private detective and reluctant socialite in 1930s London who was raised in colonial Shanghai. Sarah Hemmings, the second orphan, is a brash social climber and Banks’s intermittent love interest. The opening half of the novel, set in the drawing rooms of London with childhood flashbacks to Shanghai (the young Banks is nicknamed Puffin), offers a rehash of Ishiguro’s early, most popular fictions—the same cinematic clarity, an underlying theme of cultural bifurcation, the marrying of private drama to global politics. Banks is presented as a brilliant though somewhat obtuse detective, a cut above the butler Stevens, perhaps, but he occupies the same role: straight man to the world’s strange and sometimes cruel gyrations.
In the Puffin scenes, which at times veer uncomfortably close to children’s literature, the elder Banks works for “the great trading company” of Morganbrook and Byatt, providing his family with a life of privilege in the International Settlement, if not exactly riches. Puffin’s mother, “the most beautiful Englishwoman in Shanghai,” consumes herself with charity work—particularly an anti-opium campaign that pits her against her husband’s employers. (A typical colonial operation, Morganbrook and Byatt imports opium from India on the sly and, with the help of local warlords, deals the stuff to the Chinese populace for a healthy profit.) First Puffin’s father disappears on his way to work, and then, a few weeks later, the boy returns from a bewildering trip into the Chinese sector with his “Uncle” Philip to discover that his mother, too, is missing (presumably kidnapped). Puffin is shipped back to England in the company of a kindly Colonel Chamberlain (“Look here, old fellow,” Chamberlain counsels the boy. “You really ought to cheer up”), and a convenient inheritance from a deceased aunt provides for the boy’s education. Puffin’s fate to become a detective is sealed when schoolmates give him the “joke” present of a magnifying glass. “Gazing at it now,” the adult Banks reflects, “this thought occurs to me: if my companions’ intention was to tease me, well then, the joke is very much on them.”
During the novel’s second half, when Banks returns to Shanghai in order to investigate his parents’ case, Ishiguro’s design goes impressively haywire. Realism is no longer the order of the day but is replaced by the same kind of fabulism that ruled The Unconsoled—with battlefield entrails added. The city blossoms from exotic backdrop into wartime phantasmagoria; petty bureaucrats, decadent colonials, ex-schoolmates and other obstacles to the investigation appear and flicker out; Banks transforms from Stevens into Ryder. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Banks becomes convinced that his parents are being held in a secret location behind enemy lines, and he abandons Sarah Hemmings on the eve of their departure for Macao (she’s dumped her ex-genius husband) and stages an elaborate rescue attempt. In his haste or delirium (or both), Banks mistakes a wounded Japanese soldier for his childhood friend Akira. “When we were boys,” he muses to the soldier, “we lived in a good world.” At this point, even the adventurous reader will share a pang for the realist certainties of the Puffin chapters.
Given the sustained brilliance of The Unconsoled, why is this final section such a letdown? Because, unlike in Ishiguro’s masterpiece, here realism’s rules are broken to resolve each and every narrative thread with a “surprise” revelation rather than to complicate the novel’s staged reality. It’s one thing to create a fictional world with a skewed sense of logic, and quite another to change a novel’s guiding force midstream. Banks is just-about-human one moment and shadow the next; his investigation is emptied of significance and becomes a novelist’s lark, or something else: a failed experiment. This kind of shallow trickery, while common enough these days, is beneath the author of The Unconsoled, and one hopes that Ishiguro, with his next novel, will return to making an art that is stranger—and truer—than mere fiction.