Place Identity and Detection in When We Were Orphans

Sönmez M. J. M.

in: Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, Cynthia F. Wong and Hülya Yıldız, Editor, Ashgate, Aldershot (UK) , London, pp.79-90, 2015

  • Publication Type: Book Chapter / Chapter Research Book
  • Publication Date: 2015
  • Publisher: Ashgate, Aldershot (UK) 
  • City: London
  • Page Numbers: pp.79-90
  • Editors: Cynthia F. Wong and Hülya Yıldız, Editor
  • Middle East Technical University Affiliated: Yes


This essay analyses the appropriation by Ishiguro of place identities conventionally associated with classic detective fiction in his novel When We Were Orphans (WWWO). It is based upon the hypothesis that his much-discussed technique of appropriation applies to more than just his fictional characters, and that places are used in this way to the same extent. That is, in addition to their metaphoric and symbolic values, places can become ‘projections of the narrator’s fears and desires’ (Jaggi ‘In Search’ 8, qtd in Beedham 124). The places described in When We Were Orphans are ‘constructed according to another set of priorities’, as Ishiguro said about The Unconsoled, and in both novels the author openly admits that he is ‘not trying to faithfully recapture what some real place is like’ (Jaggi Writing 159). In When We Were Orphans, he is ‘trying to paint a picture of what the world might look like if it ran according to the less rational emotional logic that we often carry within us’ (Hogan, 157), and the less rational emotional logic is dependent for its expression on the narrator’s fixation with detective fiction. The fears and desires that create such expressionist (Holmes 12) versions of places and people in the narrative are very clearly bound to specific experiences that traumatized the narrator and shaped the subsequent development of his self-identity. As Ishiguro recognizes, wounds to young psyches do not heal on attaining adulthood: on the contrary, adulthood may bring even more profound or extreme troubles, including existential anxieties and continuing adjustments to self-identity (Jaggi Writing 165; Shaffer 169). In the novel, the ‘emotional logic’ of the narrative is based upon a traumatized memory, where ‘traces are revised at a later date in order to correspond with fresh experiences or the attainment of a new stage of development’ (Whitehead 6). The narrator’s response to his traumas is to formulate his identity and to explain to himself the cruel world around him in the simplified and reassuring terms of detective stories. This, then, is how he attempts to remember and present his physical surroundings, too.