Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro Ishiguro creates characters who think intensely about what they think and feel, but never seem to really know themselves. That, plus the dreamy, almost surreal plotting, where you never quite know what's real, and what's a dream, a fantasy, a hallucination, an alternate reality (like Murakami, only ... you know ... written well) is what keeps me coming back. I've now read the grand total of three, and I think I'm finally starting to 'get' him.

This one goes along all nice and conventional (or so you think, despite that niggling feeling that all is not as it appears), then whammo! you're plunged into an alternate, terrifying reality (is it?) and then, just as quickly, yanked back out again. All the while, a cool, British "pip pip old chap" civility, a veneer of sanity that seems to pass for reality, smooths over the rough edges and you coast along, even though you know there is something nasty and brutal - a secret, a revelation, a truth - lurking just under the surface.

The story is about a young boy whose parents disappear in Shanghai between WW I and II; who grows up to be a famous detective and comes back to solve the mystery of their disappearance.

Only, that's not really or only what it's about: it's about that detective's need to put the pieces of his past back together now that he's reached adulthood to understand who he was -- and now is -- and who his parents were. To reconstruct himself from a past where there are gaping holes and missing pieces, the biggest ones being his parents.

So it's about childhood trauma and memory and grief and also, the adult drive, guilt and remorse that emerges from it. One of my favourite things about the novel is how Ishiguro portrays childhood egocentricity - the child's core belief that everything that happens is because he did (or didn't do) something. He is the *cause* of all that happens that is bad (or good, but mostly bad) and therefore he must be the saviour. This idea - that Banks is a saviour - is deeply important in this novel. It explains personality and plot. Ishiguro also uses a "slats of the blind" metaphor, which he returns to at least three times - and I don't know if he is being intentionally noir, I suspect so, but it is a perfect detail.

The unreliability of Banks' - the great detective's - narration is positively masterful: nothing you can put your finger on, but a clear sense that he's not what he seems to be, and his recollections, out of which the entire story is formed, may not be (ironically) accurately reported or remembered. But then again, that is how childhood memories, laid down during trauma, function. Ishiguro has an iron grip on the psychology here - especially, the friendship of two young boys and a young boy's love for his mother. I love the way he reports conversations the adult Banks recalls, and how his child's ears heard and interpreted them. And Ishiguro then manages to take the childhood events, places and symbolism and later, turn them into nightmarish details that come to resonate even more deeply.

I'm not sure I fully comprehend exactly what the "case" is that Banks is trying to solve other than the obvious (or more precisely, why the 'case' seems to have global implications); I suspect a big analogy here, entirely too obvious for me to get. *sigh* Nor am I sure that Banks is fully sane throughout but I also know that I'm content to let the fuzzy dreamlike details and layers of meaning, especially the theme of loss and dislocation, be what I remember of this novel.