The Expatriates – Janice Y.K. Lee

The husbands get up in the morning, put on their suits, and take taxi-shares or minibuses or are driven to work in the tall, shiny office buildings in Central, while the women putter around the house before getting ready for their tennis match or going in to volunteer at the library, since they mostly had to give up their jobs when they moved. It all feels a bit like The Truman Show.

The Expatriates focuses on three women living in Hong Kong. Margaret Reade, her husband, Clarke, and their three children arrived three years ago from the U.S. Clarke’s about to turn 50 and Margaret’s hired a planner to organise a big celebration for him. But Margaret’s story is really about her third child, only ever referred to as ‘G’ who went missing on a family trip to Seoul and still hasn’t been found.

Mercy, 27, has also been in Hong Kong for three years. A Columbia graduate, she became part of the rich crowd on account of her being pretty. She never volunteered any information about her own, much more modest, upbringing. Struggling to get started on a career in New York, she left for Hong Kong doing a series of jobs until she met Margaret. She was the nanny in charge when G went missing.

The third woman, Hilary, is a friend of Margaret’s. She’s spent eight years trying for a baby although she hasn’t seen a doctor about it because she’s frightened of pregnancy and what it might do to her body.

It is not the idea of being pregnant that moves her. She would like a child. She would like to be a mother.

She’s visited a local orphanage and chosen a child who she’s named Julian. Unlikely to be adopted because he’s mixed race and not a baby, Hilary has circumvented the rules and arranged for Julian to come to her house to have piano lessons.

Hilary and her husband, David, a senior attorney, are growing apart. Civil but rarely in the same room, another friend hints that he’s having an affair. Unbeknownst to Hilary but clear to the reader, the woman David’s sleeping with is Mercy. The joy of small communities, eh?

Lee explores the loss of a child from two different angles: Margaret as the parent whose child’s been taken and Mercy as the nanny seemingly at fault. Both are interesting. Margaret’s is the most compelling and watching how it affects her on a daily basis, the impact it has on her other children and what happens when a glimmer of hope appears is interesting. Mercy’s is engaging from the point-of-view she expresses early in the novel:

These stories always talk about the victim, and how she or he is coping…But what Mercy wants to know is never there. The person responsible for the calamity is never mentioned…The victims are richly sympathized with, and their guilty, confused perpetrators are erased from the story. They don’t exist. They are supposed to disappear.

What did all those people do?

What are their stories?

She knows her own. She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online, and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.

Hilary’s story also explores loss, that of a marriage and potential children as well as touching on what Julian, the orphan, has lost from his life. Hilary’s story is at its most interesting when she’s criticised on an online forum for bending the rules to spend time with Julian without committing to adoption.

Lee considers what it’s like to be an expatriate more generally, as well as focusing on these specific women’s stories:

This is what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there in their actions. The way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for “Diet Coke, not Coke Zero,” as if everyone thought the distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above – really, better than – the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age?

There’s no doubt that Margaret and Hilary are incredibly privileged with regards to money and lifestyle. Lee’s portrayal of the expatriate community shows that life happens regardless of how much money your family has access to and you can still be left with what feels like a gaping hole.

The Expatriates is a mixed bag. Some parts of the storylines – the impact of the loss of G – are compelling; others seem to rely too much on coincidence and high drama – David and Mercy’s affair, in particular – and the ending errs too far over the fairy tale line with regards to what’s gone before it. Personally, I felt the novel as a whole was in thrall to motherhood, suggesting that it was a fulfilling proposition for women in a variety of circumstances. However, if you’re looking for a saga of intertwined lives touched by a terrible incident, this might be for you.


Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.