Kazuo Ishiguro's novels reveal themselves in the slow, deliberate manner of an old box of black-and-white photos telling a family history. It could be imagined his newest book was found in a rotting attic somewhere; people do not write like this anymore. His elegant, reserved prose and attention to the inner machinations of his characters place Ishiguro's work beside Graham Greene's. Like Greene, Ishiguro realizes it is understanding, not action, that truly transforms people. Yet in Ishiguro's latest novel, action overwhelms the tangled, often unbelievable plot, and the hero becomes so mired within it all that he is never able to see himself clearly.
Set in the 1930s, When We Were Orphans (Knopf) follows an English detective as he sets out to uncover his own family's defining mystery. As a child, Christopher Banks and his parents live in Shanghai, where his father works for a company that wittingly aids the opium trade, while his mother campaigns against this Western-fueled corruption. Shanghai is a lawless and intricately venal town, and when Banks's parents suddenly disappear, no one is much surprised. The boy is shipped back to England to partake of a proper English boarding-school childhood, where none of the others see much of their parents either.
Nonetheless, the unexplained nature of his orphanhood inspires Banks to become a detective. Law enforcement in the 1930s seems to have been a more glamorous profession than it is now, because when Banks solves a few high-profile cases he becomes a celebrity, collecting invitations to the finest social gatherings. He takes his reputation quite seriously, and, in his own modest reckoning, works "to check the spread of crime and evil wherever it has manifested itself." And so this indefatigable sleuth decides to return to old Shanghai to single-handedly clean up the town. Never mind that he can't separate his own family's tragedy from the hints of the next world war. It is never clear whether Banks is simply very dedicated to his case or off his rocker: A clue comes when annoying piles of dying civilians don't faze him as he blunders through a battleground hoping to solve his case.
Banks bears a strong resemblance to the butler from Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Both are refined and intelligent professionals. Both are fiercely English, although Banks's childhood gives him a slightly more global identity. As a boy growing up in Shanghai, a city overrun by European and Asian nationals, he worries that he is "not enough an Englishman." His best friend Akira, a Japanese boy in China, is certain he's insufficiently Japanese to ensure his parents' happiness. "If boys like you all grew up with a bit of everything, we might treat each other a good deal better," a family friend reassures young Banks. Or, Banks worries, without national identity, everything might fly apart.
Things do collapse for the character, and the lessons learned in childhood are quickly forgotten. In Shanghai, Banks insults the "lazy, muddleheaded" Chinese people he expects to assist him, and his veneer of calm dissolves as he realizes he won't be solving this case overnight. Faces from his past show up in a hallucinatory blur of events, and too suddenly the case is solved. Ishiguro is a master of tone, but his plot runs crazily away from him as this tale comes together. Ultimately, the author doesn't permit his hero to turn a magnifying glass upon himself--though Banks may have no need for such a prop. He keeps his oblivious heart in his pipe pocket, where everyone else can see it just fine.