Return of the native

When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro <em>Faber, 256pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0571203841

The Second World War is an important historical period for Kazuo Ishiguro. His first two novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), both deal with the impact of the conflict on the country of his birth, Japan. The Remains of the Day, the 1989 Booker Prize winner, is set in Britain in the years leading up to, and immediately after, the war, and examines the upheaval in the English class system occurring at that time. Along with the end of empire, the dissolution of class structures was one of the most important forces reshaping the English psyche in the latter half of the 20th century. Played out through a poignant story of unrealised love, this theme ensured the critical success of Remains and secured the author's reputation.

In his fourth work, The Unconsoled (1995), Ishiguro distanced himself from conventional narrative techniques. Drawing on east European influences - and Franz Kafka in particular - the novel is a vast, surreal labyrinth. The child of rejecting parents, Ryder, the narrator, is a world-renowned musician. His fame leads him into a bizarre Senator Mitchell-like role, drafted in to resolve intractable conflicts. His craving for affirmation instils urgency into his need to do good works - and hence finally to win his parents' approval - yet he exists in a dense perceptual fog, drifting between dream and reality, entirely unable to act. Different factions pull him this way and that, and he is repeatedly swamped by the swell of unfulfilled expectation.

Too long and perplexing for some tastes, The Unconsoled clamps the reader firmly between the opposing forces of helpless momentum and abject frustration - the literary equivalent of being compelled to swim one's way out of quicksand. The subtlety with which Ishiguro normalises the madness of Ryder's world is crucial to the project; and, in this respect, The Unconsoled is a success, recreating at a visceral level Ryder's lived nightmare. But the lack of a coherent story, and the difficulty of pacing such a large volume of material, served to restrict the novel's audience.

At first glance, Ishiguro's latest offering appears to signal a retreat from such experimentation. In When We Were Orphans, he returns to the familiar territory of the 1930s and the looming tragedy of the Second World War, this time locating his characters in Shanghai. The schoolboy Christopher Banks spends his days playing with his Japanese friend, Akira. Seeping through Christopher's childish self-absorption comes the story of his parents' unhappy marriage, crystallised in the conflict between his mother's passionate campaign against the opium trade and his father's professional dependence on it. When first his father and then his mother disappear, Christopher is repatriated to the care of his aunt in Britain. His education finished, he carves out a successful career as a private detective, returning to Shanghai - against the backdrop of Japan's 1937 invasion - to attempt to resolve the case that has coloured every aspect of his life: the mystery of the fate of his parents.

After an essentially conventional first half, Ishiguro begins to introduce the same techniques that he employed in The Unconsoled. Christopher achieves great fame as a detective and, as with Ryder before him, Ishiguro uses this to loosen his grip on reality. Christopher's quest to discover the truth of his orphaning becomes inseparable from the belief that, in so doing, he can resolve the military conflict raging in Shanghai. The narrative develops a delusional quality, reinforced by Christopher's lack of self-awareness, which in turn is thrown into ever-sharper relief by the dialogue and actions of those around him. The effect is to emphasise powerfully - again at the level of emotion rather than intellect - the all-consuming nature of loss. The occasional improbable twist of plot in the opening chapters soon becomes coherent with Christopher's disintegrating sense of reality as the novel progresses. By the time we are back in Shanghai - with Christopher struggling, against endless obstacles, across the war-torn Chinese quarter to get to the house where he firmly believes his parents have been incarcerated for 22 years - we are palpably in the realm of allegory. And it is powerful, even if Ishiguro experiences problems of pace that are similar, though milder, to those in The Unconsoled.

The only real flaw in this intriguing book is the return, in the closing chapters, to a rational perspective. Having taken us on a voyage into a mind unhinged by loss, Ishiguro seems to need to resolve the story that started us out on the journey - tying up loose ends; explaining (most of) the conundrums. It is possible that this was intended as a pastiche of the detective genre; equally it may be an attempt to illustrate the "calm" that flows from seeing "through our missions to the end". But while some readers may find it satisfying, the sudden reversion of tone and the neatness of the resolutions leave the ending rather flat and prosaic. Far from heightening our engagement with Christopher's character, we end up feeling that the intensity of emotion so skilfully created earlier in the novel has been diluted.

Phil Whitaker is a novelist and fiction critic for the NS

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Englishness: who cares?