Review: Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Sylvie, the titular character of Jean Kwok’s third novel, Searching for Sylvie Lee, is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, a girl who learns her manners from etiquette books and studies designer brands as intently as her statistics textbooks. During her childhood, she lives with relatives in the Netherlands for nine years because her parents cannot afford to take care of her at home in Queens. Now in her thirties, Sylvie is married to an old-money husband and works as a management consultant. Her younger sister, Amy, envies her—for her elegant hips, her degrees from Princeton and MIT and Harvard, her even-keeled mind—and views herself as an “afterthought,” far from the spectacular path of assimilation even as she dreams of being a teacher. Awkward, bookish, and prone to falling in love with strangers, Amy is easily the novel’s most likable character.

When Sylvie disappears during a trip to the Netherlands, Amy goes to find her by retracing her sister’s journey. In Amy’s bedroom hangs a poster with a quote from Willa Cather: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” These words become the novel’s thesis as it progresses through chapters that alternate between the limited points of view of Amy, Sylvie, and their mother, “Ma”. Each character narrates in her most intimate language. Kwok switches between their three traditions with ease, having lived in Hong Kong, Brooklyn, and the Netherlands.

Amy, who grows up speaking only English, tells her story in a lively present tense. Sylvie’s narrative, unfolding a month before Amy’s, is written in an anglicized rendition of Dutch. Her prose, distinguished by a lack of contractions and bovine-inspired expressions—“it’s raining cow tails”—rarely draws attention to itself, but occasionally, a sentence kicks up a storm of cultural narratives: “Where I was cold and false—a beast of artifice like the bejeweled mechanical nightingale the Chinese emperor bought to replace the one of flesh and blood—Amy was genuine, a sweet little piece of licorice, always true to herself.”

We see Ma for the first time through Amy’s eyes. Ma works at the dry cleaners and speaks her first words of the novel to a complaining customer: “So sorry, I fix.” Amy describes her mother as “timid” and “uneducated.” They can only speak to each other in broken English. But Ma’s inner world comes alive when we read her thoughts: “I was so busy with Mrs. Hawkins, whose fair skin hid ugly features, that I did not notice when Amy entered.” Kwok’s most unique treatment of language is in Ma’s chapters, where she writes: “The Brave Language belonged to the devil with all of its strange consonants, a puzzle I could not solve, and they were constantly chattering in it: stories, joys, and pains.” “Brave Language” is a literal translation of the Chinese word for EnglishElsewhere, Ma refers to China as “Central Kingdom” and a bathtub as “bathing vat.”

Depicting a language that hints at meaning through euphemisms and idioms, Kwok rejects glosses, italics, and explanatory commas. This performance of middle-aged Chineseness can feel strained at times, and once in a while, Ma has a sentence like this one: “Perhaps Sylvie would reappear, as the goddess Kuan Yin manifested herself on the surface of a muddy lake, the beauty of a lotus that bloomed above the muck.” The extended simile seems to come less from Ma than from, say, Amy attempting to author her mother’s thoughts. Of course, all acts of translation commensurate the incommensurable, and Kwok’s foray into the native speaker’s mind maintains an admirable artistic integrity.

The pleasure of suspense is another one of the novel’s gifts. Whenever a question resolves, Kwok presents some new intrigue—romantic entanglements, suspicious characters, and devastating family secrets. More than a fast-paced thriller, Searching for Sylvie Lee is a meditation on dislocation, the gulf that separates generations of migrants, and the price of achieving some version of the American dream. Amy must work like a detective in order to locate her sister, but the greater question the novel seems to be asking is whether Sylvie can find a meaningful and lasting identity as she travels through the dark forest of her own heart.

About the author

Kevin Wang is a writer based in New York City.

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