A novel set in Hong Kong, about the lives of three expatriate women, will most likely attract readers because of its exoticism. However, for someone who actually is an expat in East Asia that’s ordinary life, so I was eager to see if it lived up to the reality of my expectations. I was not disappointed.
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.
Janice Y. K Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, was a blockbuster hit. Her long-awaited second novel tracks the entwined lives of three women living in modern-day Hong Kong. Margaret is the perfect wife and mother, until tragedy threatens to tear her family apart. Implicit in the incident, Mercy finds herself unable to move forward with her life, locked in a limbo of guilt and uncertainty. Meanwhile, Hilary’s charitable actions towards a local orphan are being picked apart by the grapevine, and publicly debated in online forums. As their lives circle and overlap each other, Lee paints a vivid and real picture of the difficulties of being an expatriate woman in South East Asia, and how, in a society where all the rules are different, their old identities are stripped away and replaced with country clubs, maids, and ladies’ lunches.
Her son looked up in wonder at the life swirling and lifting around him, and she remembered thinking, This is life, too good to be true.
Margaret knows now that is not true. She knows that those moments are all false. They are just harbingers of disaster, as if they are there to remind you of all that you have to lose.
Initially I was struck by the familiarity of the themes, settings and situations. Having grown up as the child of expatriates, and living as an expat myself now, I recognized the depictions of the fish-bowl effect of a close and small community; the way that nothing stays secret for long and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Lee has an excellent eye for character: I felt like I knew these men and women intimately. They were complex, deeply flawed, and very human. Margaret’s slow and steady unraveling, as she tries to cope with the worst possible situation that a mother could face, was utterly heartbreaking. Mercy’s uncertainty as she wanders lost in a world that wants her to disappear, unsure if she is allowed to move on with her life, was just as moving. Hilary was somewhat more difficult to relate to, possibly because the depiction of the orphan Julian was somewhat superficial, but perhaps that was intentional.
She might be miserable and spend her evenings plotting revenge, but to Hilary’s eye, she had made the best out of an impossible situation. Could you spend the rest of your life being angry? She supposed you could, but it was never good for you in the end. When everything you thought was yours was taken away, and the foundation of your life shifted so you have to start from zero, you might find out who you really are. You might come up against that dark, immovable wall of truth. And that is probably the most frightening thing of all.
Each chapter alternated between the perspectives of the three main characters. I found that to be an excellent structural effect, particularly as one character’s story was left with a cliffhanger, interrupted by something important happening to another. It was gripping and it helped to keep the pace lively, as it risked being slowed by the terrible things that kept happening. Perspective is an important device in this book, as the characters are limited to their own views of the world, which makes them unreliable and more real. Perhaps this is why the portrayal of Julian felt so empty; for the majority of the book he was a sort of place-holder for Hilary’s feelings, or a sort of accessory. She tries him on like a dress, showering him with gifts and music lessons without committing to adopting him, which earns a lot of (deserved, in my opinion) criticism from her peers. It is only when she becomes aware of that criticism that she begins to see what she thought was an act of altruism to be an act of selfishness, and from that moment, Julian suddenly acquires agency, and a voice of his own.
Can you suddenly be summoned into adulthood? Mercy wonders. Is it the same as being promoted and suddenly having to pretend you know how to be a boss, or getting your period or having sex and suddenly being on the other side, knowing what it’s all about? She is suddenly an adult.
Lee sets out to explore a difficult emotional situation; the women in the book have left their former lives to start anew as expatriates. Some have followed husbands while others have followed impulses, but they all find that the new society of Hong Kong is very different. The rules are different and the pressure to succeed is much higher. They face constant scrutiny, while there is also a sense of it not being ‘real’, but a sojourn from real life that will end at the end of the job contract, to fade into memories as they return to ‘real life’. Some of the most poignant passages are when Lee describes the expatriates as a group, depicting them en masse as a horde of entitled, privileged and almost animalistic people who thrust their own expectations on the people of Hong Kong. The divide between the rich and the poor is vivid, and Lee gives great insight into their very different worlds.
You don’t win anything for being saddest the longest, Dr. Stein has said. There’s no prize for being the most miserable. You are not betraying anyone by trying to live a better life. You are not giving up on anyone.
I found The Expatriates familiar, which made its emotional impression that much more effective. It was utterly heartbreaking and at times I needed to put it down, step back and take a breath. Her descriptions are right on the nose. While it has an exotic and glamorous setting with a lot of drama, The Expatriates is also extremely realistic and that much more disturbing. This is an excellent book and I look forward to reading more from Janice Y. K. Lee.