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The Foreigner by Francie Lin
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's review
May 21, 2009

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bookshelves: china-and-chinese, immigrant-lit
Read in October, 2008

This is not your usual sentimental story about an American-born Chinese finding his roots. Instead, this page-turning debut novel by American writer Francie Lin reads more like a Hong Kong gangster flick, right down to the estranged brothers who find themselves on different sides.

Emerson, 40, lives an uneventful life as an unambitious financial analyst in San Francisco. The extent of his social life is meeting his Taiwanese immigrant mother for dinner every Friday.

Though it starts like a domestic drama about the generation gap, things take a dark turn when his mother dies suddenly of cancer.

The filial son is shocked when he discovers that she has left her motel, in which he grew up, to his ne’er-do-well younger brother Peter, a runaway who eventually went to Taiwan and has not been seen by his family for 10 years.

He heads to Taipei, not only to carry out his mother’s wish that her ashes return to Taiwan, but also to persuade his brother not to sell the motel.

Chinese only in name, he stumbles through Taipei with barely any Mandarin. This Taipei is not one of bustling food streets and towering skyscrapers, but is filled with dark alleys, decaying slums and seedy gambling dens.

Although his brother has been working at their uncle’s karaoke lounge, it turns out to be a front for a more dangerous business – the kind that drives him to lurk in the stairwell outside his flat with a knife, and involves young girls hidden away in squalid rooms.

This is a thriller with a soul. Though much of the action occurs as Emerson struggles to discover what the business really is about, with the hope of eventually freeing his brother, he is ultimately on a quest to discover where he belongs.

But as he flails through the city with his mother’s ashes tied around his neck, the alien landscape of his mother’s homeland – itself estranged from its own motherland – soon shows up as a lie the old saying: That blood is thicker than water.

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