The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

They radiate well-being and prosperity, the knowledge that someone cares about them enough to take care of them while they take care of the family.


~~here be spoilers!~~

It’s odd, the title of this novel: The Expatriates. It’s also odd that there seem to be two slightly different cover designs for it—normally the UK and US versions, if they’re going to differ, do so fairly substantially, but in this case, there are just enough similarities that you could be forgiven for not really noticing. Both feature aerial cityscapes, with big lettering, but whereas in the UK version (above) the focus is on the architecture and the sky, the sense of metropolitanism, even the title font bold and crisp, the US cover is rendered in a much more italicized, cursive script. Its cityscape cover has been photographed just after sunset instead of poised at the moment of transition; there are lights on in buildings and in bars, and most of the lower right corner of the frame is taken up by a huge, glass-walled house. The inflection of the UK cover is “global”; that of the US cover, “domestic”. And, for once, I think the US cover may have nailed it, because—despite that baffling title—The Expatriates isn’t strictly about expatriates at all. It’s about motherhood.

Of course, it’s about motherhood in a specifically expatriate environment, where “expatriate” means “privileged”, but that privilege sits differently on some women than on others. Hilary Starr comes from money and doesn’t work; she and her lawyer husband, David, have been trying to conceive a child for several years with no success. Margaret Reade, meanwhile, has two children, and is suffering from the literal loss of her youngest: little G disappeared in a crowd last year, while the family was on holiday, and despite a public appeal, has not yet been found. Finally, Mercy Cho is the childminder who was meant to be watching G when he was stolen; when the novel opens, she’s twenty-four and unemployed, still in Hong Kong but struggling to make sense of her life and to find an acceptable form for her grief over a tragedy that she feels is her fault. Over the course of the novel, all three women will come to understand and accept motherhood as the highest possible goal of a life—a conclusion which, couched as it is in a foreign setting and an occasionally melodramatic plot, could be overlooked on first reading, but which becomes increasingly uncomfortable the more you think about it.

Initially, the book looks as though it’s going to be about precisely what it says on the tin. It opens with a two-page prologue about Hong Kong’s constant arrivals, and this sucks you in: Lee is great at writing what I like to think of as “general” or “blanket” prose, wide-ranging descriptions of a particular subset of people. It’s descriptive and precise while retaining a sense of sweep, and it serves her very well here:

The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration…They are thrilled, they are homesick, they are scared, they are relieved to have arrived in Hong Kong—their new home for six months, a year, a three-year contract max, forever, nobody knows. They are fresh-faced; they are mid-career; they are here for their last job, the final rung before they’re put out to pasture. They work at banks; they work at law firms. They make buttons, clothing, hard drives, toys.

And so on. The beautiful precision of the description fades early on, though, and it is replaced by some curious repetition. Margaret, the woman who has lost her son, ends far too many of her chapters with the banal thought that you just have to carry on living, after disaster strikes, until you live your way into life again. It’s a true assertion, and endless grief is banal, but there are authors who manage to elevate that tedium of pain into something human and holy, and Lee does not; she simply repeats. Mercy, meanwhile, is astonishingly passive. Many of her chapters end with a bizarrely po-faced version of the whoops-a-daisy that tends to accompany novels featuring scatty, whimsical young heroines of the kind that Zooey Deschanel gets cast to play, a variation on “Of course [insert fresh new crisis here] had happened to her. Things like this happened to her. There was nothing she could do about. She was a magnet for catastrophe.” It’s solipsistic and self-pitying and, frankly, a bit disturbing. It is, again, true that twenty-four-year-olds are frequently solipsistic and self-pitying (I am one, I should know), but there are writers who present young adulthood in terms that are self-aware, and hence more successfully profound. Lee, again, just repeats.

There are some things that she does rather better. One is her description of Mercy’s short relationship with Charlie, a boy she knows vaguely from university and whom she dates briefly. He is oddly naive: born and raised in Hong Kong, he seems exotic to his childhood friends for having made it to America for college, but in Mercy’s eyes he is hopelessly unironic, uncool, provincial. She’s not kind about him, but in one of their dinner exchanges, Lee gives us a glimmer of understanding of how frustrated Mercy must be by their interactions. It’s one of the few times when we see a reaction instead of being told about it, and it’s understatedly powerful:

“What did you do today?” [Charlie asks]

Parrying his questions is so easy it’s like child’s play. “Such a boring topic!” she declares. “How’s work?”

And instead of saying, “And that’s not boring?” he starts telling her about work.

Which of us, o women, has not been there? This perfectly nice man, “cheerful, ebullient, a puppy eager to please”, is still not eager-to-please enough to grasp the level of unthinking, unconscious entitlement that his response reveals. No matter how eager to please he seems, he will never be as keenly aware of another person’s primacy as this woman—who is basically indifferent to him—is of his. I did a double-take when I read it: not out of surprise, just out of recognition.

The authorial emotional awareness present in that scene is strangely absent in other places, though, like when Mercy has an affair with a married man (who is, guess what, Hilary Starr’s husband, David). They’re having breakfast, a few months into their relationship, and he asks her “How are you supporting yourself?” (Why they haven’t had this conversation earlier is beyond me, but I digress.)

“I get jobs here and there,” she says. “I do a lot of different things.”

“Do you need any money?” he asks. It is so unexpectedly kind that her eyes fill with tears. It has been so long since anyone has cared enough about her to ask something like this, and to have an older, mature person consider what she might need, as opposed to her throng of twenty-something self-absorbed friends, is disconcerting and an awful kind of pleasure.

An awful kind of pleasure, it certainly is. It’s conceivable, of course, that a young woman could feel so isolated that her married lover’s offer to give her money makes her feel weepily grateful, instead of patronised and insulted. The issue isn’t so much that Mercy is terribly vulnerable and a bit pathetic; it’s that Lee doesn’t appear to think she is. Her gratitude towards David is presented as totally natural and right, without the slightest hint of reflection or analysis or consideration that maybe she’s not in a very strong state right now. Likewise, this thought, near the end of the book, when Mercy knows she is pregnant:

That’s what a mother is, she remembers thinking, someone who puts others’ needs in front of hers, who takes the pain from others and swallows it herself. Her mother, Margaret: They are mothers…This good person, this figure who is selfless and forgiving: this is who she needs to become.

There is a sense in which that is true. There is another sense in which that is a restrictive and destructive untruth. Lee acknowledges only one of these senses, and it makes for slightly blink-inducing reading.

All of this makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the novel much, although I did. Lee’s ability to anatomise a swathe of society works well with the subject of expatriate culture; scenes at the American Club, for instance, where Hilary’s quasi-adopted son Julian is bullied by some expat boys and wreaks his own quiet revenge, are drawn with wonderful clarity. So is Margaret’s relationship to her domestic help and to the party planner, Priscilla, with whom she consults about her husband’s fiftieth birthday celebrations: that weird attempt to balance professionalism with the brute fact that you are addressing someone who is, functionally, a servant. So are the sections about readjusting to life in the US, which evoke a disorientation even worse for being so temporary: the implication is that most expats readjust very quickly, and feel a kind of unnameable guilt for that, for the homing natures of their minds. This is all thought-provoking and fascinating and well expressed. If you are happy to cope with the narrating voice’s apparent conviction that each character’s responses are precisely as straightforward as they are reported to be, there is a lot to enjoy here. But I would recommend taking it all with a pinch of salt.

Many thanks to the kind folks at Little, Brown for the review copy. The Expatriates was published in the UK on 12 January, 2016.

6 thoughts on “The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

  1. I knew you’d have something interesting to say about this. Completely agree that it was patchy and while some of it was enjoyable, the central theme of motherhood made me uncomfortable too. It was made to sound as though it’s the only logical conclusion to a woman’s happiness.

    1. Yes, and some of the writing was just…I don’t know, it was the sort of thing you read at high speed not because you’re super-fascinated but because you don’t encounter any resistance with the prose at all. In a not-good way.

      Still, not a total waste of time–just a bit weird.

  2. Very interesting observations indeed. My thought was that it read like a women’s magazine article in many parts, although I did like the observations about expat life and implied superiority. Easy to read but not very profound, and, as you said, the motherhood as the be-all and end-all of womanhood was not a message I particularly liked.

    1. I think maybe she bogged down in plot–I found the “general observational” sections of prose very compelling and polished (in fact the first seven or eight pages, which also appeared in Lit Hub this past week, were absolutely ace), but the rest of it may not have been as closely edited. Hard to say.

  3. I see what you mean about being patchy. I wondered if this were a first novel, but clearly from the cover that isn’t the case. Have you read ‘The Piano Teacher’? And if so, does it have the same faults? I was wondering if this is a writer who has some emotional growing to do.

    1. Haven’t read The Piano Teacher, either, although a piano teacher does occur (in a minor way) in this book. (I wonder if she plays herself–I hope so! It’s a nice touch.)

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