Celebrated private detective, Christopher Banks, returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents.
The book is written in a sort of diary style. There are a number of extracts purportedly penned on specific dates. The narrator can look back on what happened before in each extract but, of course, the narrator has no knowledge of what will happen next.
As a society detective the narrator comes to believe in his ability to solve mysteries that have puzzled others for many years. He also comes into contact with Sarah Hemmings, an intriguing character who is seeking to marry a man she can help to achieve things and who is ruthless about pursuing those objectives, dumping boyfriends and making a fuss at soirees with no sign of embarrassment. Sarah is a figure who recurs through the narrative; she is also an orphan.
The book becomes quite bizarre when the narrator returns to Shanghai in 1937, leaving behind an orphans girl he has casually adopted. He assumes that everyone he meets knows of his and his case. The embassy seems so convinced of his ability to find and rescue his parents from their kidnappers that they are planning the welcome back ceremony. He becomes utterly arrogant and obsessed, convinced that his solving this case will mend the degenerate Shanghai community even as the Japanese fire shells over their heads into the Chinese army. He is taken to his old home where a family of Chinese live and they tell him that he is entitled to his old house back even though it always belonged to the Company. This is becoming bizarre.
The book takes leave of reality when his obsession takes him into the war zone and he convinces a Chinese lieutenant to lend him troops to rescue his parents. This now becomes a nightmare. He travels through the poorest Chinese slums, destroyed by bombs, dodging the fighting armies, listening to men dying, avoiding rotting piles of human intestines. He rescues a wounded Japanese soldier from vengeful Chinese peasants; the soldier just happens to be his childhood friend. Despite the squalor and the incredible danger he obsessively pursues his mission.
In the end he has betrayed everyone for what seems to be nothing. He meets a celebrated Communist traitor and the story is resolved.
I found it extraordinarily difficult to believe that the war zone sequence was anything more than an allegorical nightmare and yet I couldn't reconcile that with the rest of the story. I never really accepted the main character; his actions seemed arbitrary and strange. Perhaps that was the point.
A puzzle written in Ishiguro's finest prose. July 2012; 313 pages.
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57