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A Review of Francie Lin’s The Foreigner

France Lin’s The Foreigner is an assured debut, one that will leave the reader considering the strange and perhaps incredible transformations that take place over the course of the plot.

This novel adds to the growing body of Asian American literature that borders on or can be categorized as mystery fiction. It is not a traditional mystery in the sense that there isn’t an actual detective as the main character; it might be called a transnational Asian/American noir. In this respect, it deviates from the more “faithful” versions that have already appeared by writers of Asian descent such as Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat, Leonard Chang’s Leonard Choice series, and Ed Lin’s recent This is a Bust. Others that must be mentioned in this genre include the Inspector Chen series (by Qui Xiaolong), the Mei Wang mystery series (by Diane Wei Liang), as well as the work of Lisa See (Flower Net, Dragon Bones etc), Laura Joh Rowland, and Sujata Massey (Rei Shimura series).

The main character, financial analyst Emerson Chang, is to put it succinctly, a 40 year old virgin, with no prospects for marriage and a mother intent on seeing him into some sort of matrimonial arrangement. Emerson lives in the Bay Area and has consistently helped his mother who runs a motel. When Emerson’s mother dies suddenly, it is up to him to carry out the details of the will. In it, she requests that her ashes be scattered in her homeland, in Taiwan, and that her son (that, is her OTHER and her FAVORITE son), Little P, receive the motel as inheritance. Emerson will receive a small property that she still held on to in Taipei. Therein lies the mystery that catalyzes the plot forward. Little P has disappeared from their lives; his last known location is Taiwan, so Emerson, as a dutiful Confucian son, traipses off to find Little P, deliver the news, and perhaps even, venture on some sort of reconciliation. There is no clear reason why Little P left home at the time and his abrupt departure as well as his unwillingness to return to their lives is all the more haunting. Once in Taiwan, Emerson meets a colorful array of characters including Angel, a young post-undergraduate woman recently fired from journalist positions and now reviewing various eateries for a tour guide; Grace, a beautiful woman who Emerson randomly meets at a Starbucks and who he begins to teach English to; Atticus, a former professor of Engineering in New York city; Uncle and Poison, two people associated with a business establishment of questionable nature called the Palace; and finally Little P, the estranged little brother. Although the plot wears thin on the level of Emerson’s obstinance and idealism, the conclusion does ramp up the tension and pace to a significant level. The underlying social questions the novel brings up are perhaps the most considerable. What are the ethical implications of one’s knowledge The Foreigner seems to ask? What social responsibility does the individual have? Whether or not one believes the psychic journey that Emerson undertakes by the conclusion of the novel is another question entirely.

Beyond this, Lin has a scriptwriter’s eye for dialogue and scene construction. One can immediately see that this novel could be turned into a film. Taipei is brought to life and the questions of independence from China loom as a large subplot in the novel. One is reminded that one cannot approach Chinese American literature as a monolithic body. The Foreigner is a wonderfully, engaging read, the kind of book has the plasticity to be taught in the classroom, but could also double as that book you need on a plane ride.


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April 2019

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