45 pages 1 hour read

Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


When We Were Orphans is a novel by distinguished Japanese-British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, originally published in the UK in 2000. Set largely in England and Shanghai of the 1930s, the historical novel is structurally adventurous with elements of detective fiction. The plot deals with the childhood memories and the present detective work of a man in search of his missing parents, while painting a large canvass of the social systems in China and the UK during the first half of the 20th century. The book was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in the UK.

Kazuo Ishiguro (1954-) is one of the pre-eminent writers in the English language and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He has published eight novels and numerous short stories. Born in Nagasaki, Japan, to Japanese parents, he moved to the UK when he was 5 years old. His works deal with concepts of memory, social class, history, political intrigue, and philosophy. He is also the winner of a Booker Prize, the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plaque, and has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to literature.

The edition of the novel used for this study guide is by Faber and Faber, published in the UK in 2001.

Plot Summary

Christopher Banks is a young detective in 1930s England, slowly building his reputation. In a flashback, we learn he has spent his childhood in Shanghai in the International Settlement. His father works for the notorious European company that facilitates the import of opium into China. His mother is a campaigner against opium trade. When Banks is nine, both his parents disappear one after another, and Uncle Philip, her mother’s business partner, sends the boy to England for schooling. Christopher leaves his one friend, a Japanese boy named Akira, behind, and he begins a new life in a country that feels foreign to him.

In the present, he meets Sarah Hemmings, an orphan like himself, who wants to marry a man who can change the world. She becomes the wife of a much older Sir Cecil Medhurst, who promises to help negotiate peace in China during the Second Chinese-Japanese war, but he does not succeed and succumbs to alcoholism and gambling. Banks himself returns to Shanghai, determined to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance. There, he meets MacDonald, who he believes is a British Secret Service agent, and Grayson, Head of Protocol. Both men prove to be of no help to his investigations and refuse his request to meet the Yellow Snake, a notorious traitor of the communist rebels in China, who, as Banks believes, can help his quest.

Sarah invites Banks to elope with her to Macao and start a new life. He agrees but a clue as to his parents’ possible whereabouts sidetracks him; it's a house in the middle of the warzone. Abandoning Sarah, Banks embarks upon a nightmarish journey through the destroyed warrens of Shanghai slums, where he encounters a Japanese soldier, whom he believes is the adult Akira. He locates the indicated house but finds no trace of his parents. Having returned to the British consulate, Banks learns that Grayson is in fact the Secret Service agent, and he arranges a meeting with the Yellow Snake, who turns out to be Uncle Philip.

Uncle Phillip reveals that Banks's father was never kidnapped, but he left the family for his mistress and died of typhoid in Singapore. His mother insulted a Chinese warlord, Wang Ku, who Philip was courting to help fight against opium smuggling. Wang Ku took Banks's mother as his concubine, where he tortured her into submission.

Twenty years later, Banks learns of his mother’s whereabouts: she is in an institution in Hong Kong, and she does not recognize her son when he visits with his adopted protégée, Jennifer, but she remembers him as a child, and Banks understands she still loves that child and wants to protect him. Banks learns of Sarah’s death in Malaya and resigns himself to a life free of adventure and mystery.

blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
blurred text
Unlock IconUnlock all 45 pages of this Study Guide
Plus, gain access to 8,000+ more expert-written Study Guides.
Including features:
+ Mobile App
+ Printable PDF
+ Literary AI Tools