Country of Origin

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Even readers who missed Don Lee's award-winning Yellow (2001), eight stories built around the plight of those born of mixed race, might infer similar themes from the title of Lee's first novel—Country of Origin—and the ubiquity of the Japanese word gaijun, meaning “foreigner.” Issues of ethnicity and national identity fuel this sometimes perplexing narrative of an American woman lost in Tokyo. Lisa Countryman is a well-named, twenty-four-year-old graduate student whose adoptive parents died in an automobile crash. Her sister Susan, although resentful of Lisa, joins the search for the missing woman. Susan's difficulties are exacerbated by the Japanese preference for racial exclusivity, exemplified by a maternity nurse who refers to mixed-race babies as “polluters.”

The lives of several people, previously strangers to one another and to Lisa, interlock in the manner of Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), the novel on which the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes was based. Lee, however, is less Hitchcockian than Sophoclean. Dramatic irony—the audience knowing, the characters in the dark—plays like a pall over the action. The reader, from the start, knows Lisa is dead; the other characters are caught up, directly or indirectly, in her plight.

Listed with their ethnic résumés, these characters include Tom Hurley, born of a Korean mother and a white American soldier. Hurley is a young, affable, and pettily corrupt consul at the American embassy. Julia Tinsley, a white American, is the object of his affections and the inconstant wife to her CIA-agent husband, Vincent Kitamura, a mix of Japanese and American stock and a man of many aliases. Kenzo Ota is a clumsy yet lovable detective in the mold of Kingsley Amis hero Lucky Jim Dixon, with his neurotic self-imaging and bumbling attempts at love.

From her first appearance in the opening chapter on the last day of her life, Lisa is enigmatic. What the reader senses is her identity crisis—her prime reason for being in Japan—the echoes of which ring through the lives of all the characters affected by her disappearance. What the reader knows is that a disenchanted Lisa strays from the exotic Rendezvous Club, where she is a hostess, into taboo social terrain called dohan (“outside date”). She then disdains sex with a rich, older customer, becomes tipsy on gimlets and drugs, and dies, choking, from a lethal combination of alcohol, drugs, and food.

Country of Origin has all the components of an exotic crime novel. Lee combines a missing woman, a human menagerie (but...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)