The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

In brief: In Hong Kong, three expatriate women are going through difficult times: Margaret has lost her child, Mercy can’t move forward due to her past and Hilary desperately wants a child. Circumstances bring them all together…

The good: Janice Y.K. Lee always writes powerful, emotive stories.

The not-so-good: What happened to G?

Why I chose it: Christmas present.

Year: 2016

Pages: 332

Publisher: Little, Brown (Hachette)

Setting: Primarily Hong Kong

My rating: 9 out of 10

Hong Kong is not a common setting in my book reading world, so on hearing about this book I really wanted to read it. The bonus was hearing that it was by Janice Y. K. Lee, who wrote the hauntingly beautiful The Piano Teacher. I was expecting a book of substance, which I definitely got. Lee takes the expatriate experience, in itself lonely, and applies it to three women, who also have reasons not to be happy.

Margaret was a willing expat life, willing to take on life in Hong Kong – the lunches, charities and the Target.com hauls. All that changed when her child, G (we never learn the rest of his name) disappeared off the streets of Seoul. Now she is a shell of her former self, not willing to move on and not willing to forgive her baby sitter. That person happens to be Mercy, also an expatriate Columbia graduate. Mercy knows she’s not one to have good luck and she feels just as bad about the disappearance of G as Margaret. Now she drifts aimlessly in Hong Kong until one night she meets an expatriate at a bar… That man happens to be the husband of Hilary, who sits on the fringes of the American expatriate society. She doesn’t have a child, but wants one desperately. She’s determined to the adopt orphan Julian, no matter what the gossipers say.

For the most part, the women are alone in their experiences and it’s only gradually that the reader sees the links between the women in this small, awkward community in a foreign city. The narrative moves from character to character as they sit on the fringes. All are afraid to move on with their lives, to accept the past. Except for Hilary – she’s got a shock coming to her as her life becomes entangled with Mercy’s. The pain and lonesomeness is tangible for each character, but it’s to Lee’s credit that the reader never gets sick of it. Things move slowly as each character moves on, but again it’s not boring but feels very natural. Lee has a talent for writing that is raw, yet beautiful, no matter the subject matter. The melancholy seeps through the novel but the ending gives a glimmer of hope for each of the characters. Slowly but surely, they are accepting their fates and moving in the direction to make the most of it.

This is a book that hints, rather than reveals to the reader but without being frustratingly obtuse. Enough of the loose ends are tied up to be satisfying, but there is plenty to reflect on once the book is finished. It’s not just about the fish out of water that can be the expatriate experience, it’s an insight into motherhood and how the past shapes the future.

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2 thoughts on “The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

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  1. I read this one last year and liked it. Her characters are interesting, not always likable but I keep reading because I have to know what will happen 🙂

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