Book review: The Expatriates

THE world of the contract employee — a contradictory phrase in itself — is the setting of Janice YK Lee’s second novel. 

Janice YK Lee

Little Brown, €22.10; ebook, €12.99

It’s a new kind of career and The Expatriates establishes its drama as slowly as the expatriates themselves settle into an existence which is foreign both geographically and culturally. Above all it is temporary, to continue only for the duration of the contract.

This landscape is akin to home turf for Lee, who was born in Korea, educated in America and now lives in Hong Kong. 

Her first novel, The Piano Teacher, focused on the social aftermath of the Japanese occupation during World War Two; that book appeared in 2009, and the publishing gap in the meantime was filled with the arrival of four children, including twins. 

Which is probably why this new novel concentrates on aspects of parenthood, especially motherhood, with its cast of central characters comprising a woman who longs for a child, a woman who has lost a child and a woman who is unexpectedly pregnant.

The connection between them is that each is living in Hong Kong, an environment of such social and political fluidity that it seems impossible for these transients to find a secure foothold apart from the international commonplaces of malls and clubs.

Margaret, Hilary and Mercy are the three women around whom the plot is woven, caught as they are in the little web spun by the men whose own lives have brought them to Hong Kong as women of status but of no fixed abode. 

Their’s are lives in waiting, hours and days and months spent searching for ways in which to engage their interests and satisfy their energies until they can at last go home.

Not that they all want to go home, there are choices to be made and bridges to be crossed before the dream of a settled life can become reality here or elsewhere. 

These and other characters are people whose lives are on hold, and what has gone before is as potent in the story as the actual current of events which eventually unites them.

What gives the novel its colour is the interaction between the visitors, the expatriates, and the native population, and this is especially forceful where the distinctions of race and culture are less obvious, creating, both for writer and reader, a subtle confusion of identities. 

The excitement comes from the glancing engagements with the natives, although the ethnic amalgamations or separations which enliven Hong Kong can hardly be called “native” with any accuracy. 

Lee offers a chance to observe this mingled society more or less as the expatriates themselves experience it, although her narrative sets her protagonists like figures against a background into which they can never merge.

These portraits are cleverly and carefully produced and the linkages which oil the wheels of the story are managed with skill, despite the ever-shifting scenery against which the drama escalates. 

Lee’s control is steady, especially in her treatment of Margaret, mother of the child who disappears while in Mercy’s care.

In other hands this theme might have been developed to hysteria; here the loss is something remembered, relived and, although not without a trembling current of tragedy, resolved. 

Some readers may feel that this is too easily achieved; a child’s death is one thing, certain and unchangeable, a child’s disappearance loads the loss with the terror, continuing forever, of where it might be, what might be happening to it, what are its unheard pleas for rescue.

By placing this catastrophe not at the core but at the periphery of her story Lee skirts a different theme, but without properly hiding it.


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