So here’s the thing. I really do feel bad when I bag on a book someone has recommended to me. It’s not like I take vicious pleasure in dismantling books that people obviously love. But I think that honesty is important, and that’s why I’m going to say sorry Tristan, but this book blows chunder. That might not be what the New York Review of Books says, but the reviewer was probably thinking it. Or maybe he dismissed the sheer crappiness of this book as “complexity,” in a stubborn refusal to recognize the truth.
My first problem with the book is with the way it’s laid out. Right in the beginning, the character tells you that he is remembering events from his past. That’s cool. Lots of books do that. I’m down with a little reminiscence. But then, three pages into the book, he’s already casting his mind back even further, and by page 30, I am totally confused. I have no idea of what’s going on in the past, what’s going on in the present, and what’s even older, and this problem persists throughout the whole book.
This bugs me. I don’t like it when authors do cute things and try to create complex layers of an onion or some such nonsense. I’m fine with a book written in the present where the author occasionally passes his or her mind back, creating a few select flashbacks. I am not ok with flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. It makes it incredibly difficult to follow or enjoy what is going on, as I am constantly in a state of tension, expecting yet another stupid flashback.
I am also not ok with authors who slide around issues instead of facing them directly, with secretive characters and dark allusions. Oh, I know, it’s “the refusal of the character to face his past,” and I think it’s crap. I believe I’ve said this about other books, but it’s such a good metaphor that I’ll use it again: this book reminded me of a bunch of high school girls talking about sex. Making allusions to make itself seem more experienced and knowing, the book hoped that the reader wouldn’t actually realize that it had no clue what it was talking about.
This book also felt very scattered and poorly organized. Perhaps this is because the character himself is that way, especially in the later part of the book, where he seems to go right off the deep end. He seems to have no sense of himself and the environments he’s in, and no awareness and perception of others. And he even admits this, making it all the more peculiar that he would become a detective, let alone a successful one. I know that this is Ishiguro’s way, as he is rather fond of setting up characters who end up being almost completely unhinged, but it doesn’t mean I always like it.
Finally, I just didn’t like the story. The whole plot with the kidnapping of his parents and the unraveling of this story was completely unbelievable to me. Now, I know that this is the point of fiction. It’s not necessarily supposed to be believable, and obviously I don’t have a problem with reading books that aren’t plausible. But this story felt like the fanciful imagination of a little kid, rather than an adult novel, and I was not impressed by it. I mean, please, having his mother become the sex slave of a Chinese drug lord? It was just stupid.
The whole book was stupid. I don’t care that it got critical acclaim. I don’t have much respect for critics, and I don’t have much respect for bad books. Ishiguro can do better. I’ve seen it. This, on the other hand, is garbage.
When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Published 2000, 336 pages. Fiction.