Book Of The Month

Haunted by a lost child

Janice Y.K. Lee's (above) The Expatriates looks at how the sense of loss can wreck families.
Janice Y.K. Lee's (above) The Expatriates looks at how the sense of loss can wreck families.PHOTO: XUE TAN

A happily married expatriate woman in Hong Kong finds her life upended when her youngest son goes missing in Seoul

The lonely, quiet desperation of expatriates comes into sharp focus against the twinkling-lights backdrop of cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the birth city of author Janice Y.K. Lee in her second novel.

At first glance, The Expatriates seems like an update of her debut novel, The Piano Teacher, a love story which traced the life of British expatriates who settled in Hong Kong in the 1940s and 1950s.

But whereas The Piano Teacher felt like a lightweight romance novel at times, The Expatriates plumbs the deep sense of dislocation and loss lurking beneath the glitzy veneer of expatriate life (weekend junk boat trips and lavish soirees), showing how it can rend families and wreck lives.

Lee's narrative is interwoven with wry, knowing sociocultural observations of contemporary Asian family and society, informed by her upbringing (the Korean writer was born and raised in Hong Kong).

In the story, expatriate wife Margaret Reade is blissfully married with three children and a landscape architect by profession. Her life is upended when her youngest son, the mysteriously named G, goes missing during a trip to Seoul on her babysitter's watch.

  • FICTION

    THE EXPATRIATES

    By Janice Y.K. Lee

    Little Brown/ Paperback/ 336 pages/$19/ Major bookstores/4 stars

The babysitter is Mercy Cho, a second-generation Korean-American newly relocated to Hong Kong, who becomes mired in guilt and self-destruction.

Lee understands the expatriates' plight, but is not afraid to mock their crazy rich First-World pains with an Austen-esque wit.

Both characters, haunted by the incident, cannot move forward with their lives - Margaret secretly rents a derelict apartment to escape her family, while Mercy seeks solace in a romantic dalliance with David, husband of Hillary Starr, who is grappling with her childlessness.

Lee contrasts their emotional stasis with unabating physical movement in the city.

Her characters are transients wandering through hotel lobbies, bustling streets, shopping centres, going through the daily motions of life in search of reprieve.

Her familiarity with modern-day Hong Kong takes readers on an insider's tour of the city - Tsim Sha Tsui is the "type of neighbourhood that gathers energy as night descends"; Repulse Bay is a "homogeneous enclave of expatdom", where new, intermediate and old hand expatriates are stratified, while Hong Kongers are "like the landed gentry in England, beset by their mainland counterparts, who sweep over the border in overwhelming numbers with their fat wallets and arriviste ways".

Lee understands the expatriates' plight, but is not afraid to mock their crazy rich First-World pains with an Austen-esque wit ("Are you wearing Dansko clogs or Jimmy Choo mules, are you a salon blonde or do you leave your hair in a ponytail?" she writes at one point).

The claustrophobic and gossip- mongering nature of the community is best captured when Hillary stumbles upon an expatriate community forum user, probably someone she knows in real life, dishing the dirt on her impending adoption of a mixed-race orphan.

The seemingly frivolous material is elevated by her writing, which tumbles out in staccato sentences, suffused with anguish.

Margaret, reeling from the loss of her son, gets spirited away to Phuket by her husband, but gets stopped at the airport: "How do you tell your travel agent that you lost your child, literally lost him, more than a year ago, and that now you're going on vacation?"

Mercy dates a Chinese boy, finds him "callow", but gets drunk and beds him anyway.

She "goes home at 2:00am to her mother, sleeping in her bed, her insides clanging with confusion, and yes, this, her baby".

But it is Lee's exploration of motherhood and how it shapes the self which forms the book's emotional core.

All three female protagonists, hemmed in by their blinkered lives, find a new lease of life in motherhood.

Margaret painfully but slowly rouses herself from her grief to care for her children, while Hillary and Mercy find comfort in their mothers, then take their own baby steps towards becoming new mothers.

"Grief is the price you pay for love", Margaret reads on her Facebook feed.

Lee intertwines these two complex emotions in The Expatriates' interlocking story threads, making for a culturally attuned read that is both sobering and uplifting.

If you like this, read: Gweilo: Memories Of A Hong Kong Childhood by Martin Booth (Bantam Press, 2005, $23, Books Kinokuniya), a keenly observed evocation of what life was like for the author growing up in post-war Hong Kong. Its title is a Cantonese perjorative for Westerners, sometimes used in jest.


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    MR SPLITFOOT

    By Samantha Hunt

    Corsair/Hardcover/323 pages/$40.05/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

American writer and Orange Prize finalist Samantha Hunt mixes up orphans, religious cults and the supernatural in a deftly plotted, densely written third novel that explores the thin line between faith, belief and lies.

For all its grim and feverish qualities, the odd moments of sweetness that pop up make the book grow on you.

The story is split into two interwoven strands. The first involves scarred foster child Ruth, who grows up in a crowded, squalid ranch run by a religious fanatic.

Her closest friend is Nat, an uncannily beautiful boy who has the apparent ability to talk to ghosts.

When a travelling conman called Mr Bell shows up on their doorstep, he helps them turn Nat's skills into a lucrative scheme to buy their way off the ranch.

The chapters from their perspective are interlaced with those recounted in first person by Ruth's niece Cora, which take place 14 years later.

Cora is stuck in a dead-end job and unexpectedly pregnant. When she tells her older, married lover, he tries to trick her into aborting the baby.

So, when her aunt Ruth, now mute, suddenly reappears in her life, Cora impulsively decides to accompany her on her mysterious pilgrimage - an increasingly bizarre months-long odyssey on foot across the state of New York into the wilderness of Ruth's past.

Cora's trek across New York gradually devolves into one long fever dream. It grows increasingly difficult to tell what is hallucination and what is real, especially in a sequence that takes place in a middle-of-nowhere motel where, the receptionist tells Cora matter-of-factly, "dead people live".

Hunt interrogates the nature of faith in a universe where it has been corrupted. Upstate New York seems overrun by religious fanatics and crackpot cults, a relentless parade that swings between the terrifying and the plain ridiculous.

The Father, who runs the Love of Christ! ranch where Ruth and Nat grow up, is "part hippie, part psychopath". He delivers nightly fire-and-brimstone lectures on the coming Apocalypse, while punishing his wards by starving, beating or even sitting on them.

Yet he seems almost benevolent compared with the Etherists, a cult whom Ruth and Nat later run afoul of. Their charismatic, dangerous leader Mardellion takes underaged wives from among his followers' daughters and snorts toilet-bowl cleaner to bring himself closer to the cosmos.

Ruth and Nat, too, learn how to manipulate belief for their own ends, calling on a shadowy entity, "Mr Splitfoot", and faking access to the spirit world for a paying audience desperate to reconnect their loved ones.

The journeys that Ruth and Cora embark on in each timeline become ways to redeem faith through love, whether through romance or motherhood.

The novel's intricate plotting rewards further reading. Its ending is both an epiphany and an ache as its two narratives finally converge, in a testament to how love makes whole what has been split apart.

If you like this, read: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Picador, 2015, $22.95, Books Kinokuniya), about two orphan sisters in a remote lakeside town in Idaho and their aunt, an eccentric drifter who tries to raise them.

Olivia Ho


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    SCARY OLD SEX

    By Arlene Heyman

    Bloomsbury/Paperback/228 pages/ $32.05/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

This book is not for the prudish.

The stories in Scary Old Sex serve both as a roadmap to how people may one day struggle with old loves and decaying bodies, and as an unearthed time capsule unleashing the attendant memories.

But if you can get past the explicit descriptions of what goes on in a bedroom - including vivid descriptions of a geriatric's genitalia - Scary Old Sex is a surprisingly tender exploration of love, lust and their complexities.

Arlene Heyman, a practising psychiatrist, makes her fiction debut at the age of 70 with this collection of seven short stories.

Heyman's experience - as a doctor and in her years - shows in how authentically she captures her protagonists' thoughts.

In The Loves Of Her Life, she channels an attractive 65-year-old woman about to have sex with her second husband, while reminiscing her first.

In Dancing, she is a 15-year-old boy fantasising about his classmates' breasts when the Twin Towers in New York City begin to fall.

The book is a treat for readers of all ages: The stories serve both as a roadmap to how people may one day struggle with old loves and decaying bodies, and as an unearthed time capsule unleashing the attendant memories.

The most unsettling but rewarding story is In Love With Murray, about a beautiful art student in an affair with a married artist old enough to be her father.

In just 36 pages, Dr Heyman delivers a blistering examination of insecurity.

It can be physical, like when the art student refuses to show her body to her lover for the longest time, choosing instead to have sex under sweltering blankets. It can also take the form of plain jealousy, as when she desires a modicum of her lover's success.

Sometimes, insecurity takes root even when a couple seem to be deeply in love with each other.

As the student describes her lover, who has opened her young eyes to so many things: "He was the background music of her life and the foreground music - although she knew she should be her own foreground music."

The ending does not provide a satisfying closure, but perhaps it echoes the price people pay for many things in life.

The story becomes even more poignant when one realises Heyman has dedicated the story to American author Bernard Malamud, her teacher-turned- companion who was also more than 20 years older than her.

Scary Old Sex may sometimes read like the text version of the Kama Sutra, but it is also a tribute to all kinds of love - especially the heartbreaking ones.

If you like this, read: I Knew You'd Be Lovely by Alethea Black (2011, Broadway Books, $23.38, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of short stories featuring memorable characters trying to feel their way towards anything that would take them to the opposite of loneliness.

Rachel Au-Yong


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    YOUR HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF YOUR FIST

    By Sunil Yapa

    Little, Brown And Company/Paperback/320pages/ $29.95/Books Kinokuniya/

This fictional account of a single jam-packed day during the real-life 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle unfolds at a frenetic pace.

Two factions are at war on the streets of Seattle, at a time when anti-globalisation sentiment is at its peak.

There are the activists out to disrupt the WTO Ministerial Conference, who start off keen on keeping the protest a peaceful one, but soon find themselves whipped into a frenzy. Then, there are the policemen bent on clearing the streets - at first through negotiation and then through violence.

Protesters and police collide, and writer Sunil Yapa paints the brutal battleground on the streets of Seattle in urgent strokes.

In staccato sentences, he takes the reader on a cinematic tour of the chaos: "He saw a mist of blood from a riot baton. Blood exiting in a fine spray from a man's shaved scalp. The cops stepping like ballerinas. Testing the ground as if they might fall through."

But while the immediacy of his writing does wonders for the action, it traps him into a formula that does a huge disservice to his characters, whose personalities are overwhelmed by the sound and fury of the protest.

The book is broken up into short sections that flit between the perspectives of seven main characters and offers too-sparse looks at what makes them tick.

Among them are the villainous Officer Park with his scarred face and love of power, and activist leader John Henry, whom the reader is meant to see as charismatic, but his dialogue is feeble and bland.

Then, there is an exercise in convenience with the sudden revelation of the relationship between teenage runaway Victor, who volunteers to be a link in a human chain at the protest, and police chief Bishop, the man in charge of clearing the streets of protesters. Yapa tries to use the pair to weave shades of fraught family ties and conflict into a book coloured mostly by panic.

But this falls flat: The true emotional core of the book seems to lie in the troubled Sri Lankan delegate Dr Charles Wickramsinghe, a man on a mission to get his country into the WTO. The protest might cost Sri Lanka's economic future.

A protester tells him they are out to "protect countries like yours", and Charles wonders at the privilege that fuels such protests: "As if every soul that had ever breathed the air of Sri Lanka - the Third World - had lived a miserable ill-begotten life. Died a nameless unremarked death... It was a strange idea. Did these people imagine America to be a place lacking in sorrow? Suffering?"

At its heart, the book is a study of courage and justice. How far are you willing to go for what is right? What is right?

Yapa offers an exhilarating ride through a massive display of civic action - and there is no better time for it than now. In a period of growing activism - issues such as the environment and race have hit even the glitzy Oscars - it slots in well with the growing need and capability to assert people's causes and offers a look at the emotions and beliefs that power the since-faded anti-globalisation movement.

If you like this, read: The Art Of Protest: Culture And Activism From The Civil Right Movement To The Streets Of Seattle by T.V. Reed (University of Minnesota Press, 2005, $42.27, Books Kinokuniya), which delves into the development and significance of social movements in America, from the African-American civil rights movements to the 21st century call for global justice.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh


  • FICTION

    THE WOMAN WHO RAN

    By Sam Baker

    Harper/Paperback/406 pages/$19.73/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

An enigmatic woman named Helen Graham turns up in a Yorkshire village and rents an abandoned house, stoking rumours among local gossips when a retired journalist takes an interest in her.

But she is plagued by a constant terror fuelled by fragments of memories that refuse to add up: flashes of a dead body while fleeing a burning apartment in Paris, images of children in war-torn Iraq and bizarre notes from people from her past.

Former Cosmopolitan magazine editor Sam Baker builds on the opening premises of Anne Bronte's second novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, to produce a tightly woven psychological thriller filled with twists and turns.

The unreliable perspective of Helen, shell-shocked from her experiences as a war photographer on the frontlines in Iraq, and the curiosity of retired journalist Gil Markham, restless and unfulfilled after decades of landing front-page scoops, push and pull as contrasting versions of the truth are pitted against each other.

The novel struggles to keep pace in its opening sequences, held back by the flat characterisation of Helen whose hysteria and self- righteousness in defending the integrity of her profession as a war photographer seem initially incomprehensible.

Baker's limited scope of research into photojournalism for the book - mostly based on memoirs by female photographers such as Lynsey Addario rather than intensive groundwork - could have contributed to the weakness of the prose, which can come across as preachy and didactic at times.

In one such instance, Helen recounts a group of young refugees she photographed: "They were... naked before the lens, stripped back to fear, emptiness or resignation. Their nakedness was political, financial. Nudity is a first-world luxury. Naked is to be without defence, clothes are not the issue, emotions are."

But the characters become more compelling as the reader moves back onto territory that confronts Helen's troubled relationship with her estranged husband, an established journalist.

Her self-righteousness becomes more forgivable when the narrative reveals the true horror of living under the shadow of a manipulative persona that makes Helen feel as if she had been "put in a box".

"How you end up in there is the biggest trick," she says. "You're in there because you're special. Soon the box starts to shrink. Every time you touch the edges there's an 'argument'... You don't understand that you will never, ever be tiny enough to fit."

The novel is no weighty rumination on the ethical considerations of photojournalism, but suffices as a gripping "chick-noir" read that chronicles the delicate tussle for power between ambitious minds in a domestic setting.

If you like this, read: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (Orion Publishing, 2007, $17.95, Books Kinokuniya), in which a newspaper journalist uncovers startling truths about her estranged mother when she returns to her hometown to investigate the murder of a girl.

Yuen Sin


  • FICTION

    THE DROWNED DETECTIVE

    By Neil Jordan

    Bloomsbury Publishing/Paperback/264 pages/$30.62/Pre-order from Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

Irish auteur Neil Jordan is a master of film and paper.

The film director, best known for the 1994 horror classic Interview With A Vampire and the Oscar- winning psychological thriller The Crying Game (1992), began as an author in 1976.

But, given his big-screen exploits over the years, it is little wonder The Drowned Detective feels rather cinematic.

The intoxicating read is Jordan's seventh novel and first since the gothic Mistaken (2011), an award-winning story about doppelgangers.

The Drowned Detective is equally enigmatic. Set in a vividly painted unnamed city formerly of the Soviet Union, it is part psychological crime mystery, part occult thriller.

An English sleuth, Jonathan, runs a detective agency. An elderly couple approach him, seeking closure for the disappearance of their daughter Petra nearly two decades earlier.

The photograph of Petra reminds him of his own daughter, Jenny, and he decides to take on the case.

A psychic - a character inspired by the late actress and cabaret artist Marlene Dietrich - says the girl is trapped in a "small room that she cannot leave". Is the girl a sex worker?

Jonathan's investigation gets turned on its head by his own rocky marriage with Sarah, his archaeologist wife, while his life gets intertwined with that of a suicidal cellist, a femme fatale whom he rescues from a freezing river.

If this noir novel were to be translated onto the big screen, it will be easy to imagine sombre, washed- out scenes that capture the Mitteleuropean mood, set against the soundtrack of Bach's baroque music.

The unnamed city comes to life through Jordan's writing, whether he is portraying a philandering government minister, the psychic who is a self-confessed charlatan or rioters who don colourful balaclavas like those worn by Russian feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot or describing opera houses, blind stone angel statues on metal bridges, mediaeval cobbled streets and rows of the temperate linden trees.

This genre-bending story is full of twists and turns, and is bound to send chills down the reader's spine.

But it is not spared the tropes that plague many horror films. For one thing, character development is hardly a priority.

Like the protagonist who insists on investigating the strange sound in the dead of the night, despite knowing that he probably should not, there are similarly questionable decisions made here too.

If you like this, read: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon Books, 2000, $37.59, Books Kinokuniya). A family moves into a new home only to discover the inside of their house is larger than on the outside. A cult favourite, the psychedelic horror story is literally a book within a book within a book filled with codes, messages and footnotes.

Walter Sim


  • FICTION

    The Maker Of Swans

    By Paraic O'Donnell

    Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Paperback/ 339 pages/$32.95/Books Kinokuniya/3 stars

On one level, The Maker Of Swans is a gothic tale of the louche and dissolute Mr Crowe, whose reckless murder of a love rival attracts those anxious to make him pay for his crimes.

Eustace and Clara - his butler and the mute girl who is his ward and shares some of his gifts - are caught up in the ensuing maelstrom, becoming pawns in a struggle for power.

But Paraic O'Donnell's debut novel is essentially about the written word and its power to create and destroy. As its young heroine sets pen to paper, swans are brought into existence out of thin air and roses bloom in deep snow. The mechanics of how this magic works are alluded to, never spelt out.

For a novel in which everything - from plot to characters - is painted in broad strokes rather than fine detail, it works.

Those who are fans of the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake will find it all here - the vast libraries, the opulent ballrooms and the dank, musty cellars - albeit on a smaller scale.

As with that dark trilogy, Mr Crowe's world feels ageless. There are hints of the modern world - such as the mention of his sleek, speedy Jaguar - but most of the plot unfolds within ancient mansions that are insulated from the real world.

Whether it is set in the present day or the 1800s hardly matters, one feels, in a place so obviously divorced from reality.

Where the novel truly shines is in the richness of its writing. O'Donnell has dabbled in poetry and this is evident from the first pages comprising vivid description of fruit.

"Grapes lay on salvers in bloated and dusty heaps, liver-dark or the green of new oak leaves," he writes. "Plump figs, tawny and oozing, were piled splendidly in crystal bowls."

It is a pity that, stripped of its lavish trappings, the plot is threadbare and its revelations come too late to hold any surprise for the reader. Throughout the novel, O'Donnell builds up a sense of foreboding that hardly seems to pay off when one reaches the end.

Still, one manages to forgive him this - or at least forget it - as long as one does not look too closely.

If you like this, read: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, 2011, $13.95, Books Kinokuniya), a dark Victorian tale about a magical circus that is open only at night.

Linette Lai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Haunted by a lost child'. Print Edition | Subscribe