"Country of Origin"
(Reviewed by Tony Ross MAY 24, 2007)
Set in 1980 Tokyo, this debut novel preoccupies itself with the theme of identity born of mixed heritage. At the the plot level, it's a fairly effective mystery about an American woman who goes missing and the sad sack Japanese detective who's assigned her case. The woman is Lisa Countryman, who is ostensibly in Tokyo to research the sex economy for her PhD thesis. She was born in Japan, but was adopted as a baby by a black U.S. military family, and the real impetus for her trip is to locate her birth mother.
When her sister in the U.S. eventually calls the embassy for help in locating her, the case is assigned to Tom Hurley. He's a somewhat dissolute 30something consular officer who's mostly interested in bedding the wife of a CIA officer, but is also conflicted about his own mixed heritage. Hurley passes the case on to Kenzo Ota, a lonely, ineffectual, middle-aged police detective invisible to his peers and society in general.
For Ota, the case is an opportunity to get away from his window office (a position of shame in the Japanese workplace) and win some respect from his colleagues. Ota's investigation alternates with flashbacks to Lisa's arrival in Japan, as she drifts from research into bar hostessing, and hires a detective of her own to track down her mother. Meanwhile, a third subplot revolves around Hurley's affair with the CIA wife, Julia, who has somehow heard about the missing Lisa and takes a mysterious interest in the case. There's also a running subplot about Ota's personal life, which includes an encounter with his ex-wife and her son (who may be his), and a budding romance. This is a lot of plot to juggle, and Lee mostly pulls it off, although the book probably could have been much improved by excising or greatly diminishing the Hurley material. The best parts of the book are those that follow Lisa as she navigates the world of fly-by-night English schools and various levels of hostess bars, and those showing the forlorn Ota struggling for redemption. He's the embodiment of one aspect of the Japanese national psyche, the sense that life is suffering and sorrow, and that moments of happiness are the exception rather than the rule.
What's also quite good about the book is the portrait of Japan, although one has to remember that it is set some 25 years in the past (the Iran hostage crisis is a running background element). It's a time when foreigners were present in Tokyo in much lesser numbers than now but Western cultural influence is starting to assert itself. Against all this, the central theme of identity is brought ought through the Japanese preoccupation with racial distinctions and the conflicts deep within many of the characters about themselves. Lee's prose is quite fluid and if the book is guilty of anything, it's of trying to cram in a bit too much. Still, I will certainly keep an eye out for his next book.
- Amazon readers rating: from 14 reviews
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About the Author:
Don Lee is a third-generation Korean American. The sone of a career State Department officer, he spent the majority of his childhood in Tokyo and Seoul. He received a B.A. in English literature from UCLA and his M.F.A. in creative writing and literature from Emerson College. After graduating, he taught fiction writing workshops at Emerson College for four years as an adjunct instructor, then began working full-time at Ploughshares, a litery journal as Editor.
Country of Origin won an which won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. Yellow won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
He has received an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and his stories have been published in The Kenyon Review, GQ, New England Review, The North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Bamboo Ridge, Manoa, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Charlie Chan Is Dead 2, Screaming Monkeys, Narrative, and elsewhere. His book reviews and essays have appeared in The Boston Globe, Harvard Review, Agni, Boston magazine, The Village Voice, and other magazines. He has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the St. Botolph Club Foundation.
He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but moving to St. Paul Minnesota in the fall of 2007 to teach Creative Writing at the Macalester College.