Searching for Sylvie Lee: A Novel by Jean Kwok

 

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Often there’s a dichotomy between the beautiful sister and the smart one, but in our family, both of those qualities belong to my sister. 

The sadness of this novel is like ants under the skin. There are choices we make because of this enormous love we have for our children that end up tearing apart their universe. It was only meant to be a year, as Ma and Pa tried to make a place for themselves in the Beautiful Country. But New York is so much harder than they realized it would be, with their meager savings soon exhausted, and no hope for work anytime soon, it is with a heavy, shameful heart that Ma decides she will do right by Sylvie and accept the offer from her cousin Helena. With Grandma living with her cousin in Holland, caring for Helena’s young son therefore, unable to come to America and help with her baby girl, Helena has ‘kindly’ offered a place for Sylvie to live. Her mother writes her, “if you were to entrust your most precious fruit to me, perhaps it might alleviate your burden.”  After much internal struggle, and the reality of their hardships in America as immigrants who cannot even speak the language, it is decided- but it is a devastating decision.

A child in between places her entire life, at the age of nine Sylvie finally returns to live with her biological family. Unlike Amy, born after the difficult years and her parents assimilation into American culture, Sylvie feels like the cast off, a stranger. Torn from the only home she has ever known, feeling more that they wanted her back only so she can babysit her little sister (the longed for cherished daughter), she feels as unwelcome here. Thrust into yet another world where she doesn’t fit, painted as ‘other than’ for her accent alone, suffering the humiliation of a corrective eye patch that only adds more fuel to her awkwardness, hurt by the racist barbs from her peers, her mind still embedded in all things Dutch, she is the one who never truly assimilates into one culture nor one home. In both houses, in both countries she longs for the things she has been forced to abandon. All a child feels is rejection, for a child’s heart doesn’t understand the reason of the adult world, a hungry belly is nothing compared to the hunger for a mother/father’s embrace. A grown woman now, Princeton and MIT educated, a management consultant, more than surpassing her parents humble world, “how did a brilliant creature like Sylvie arise from such mundane stock as our ma and pa?” she is called back to what she feels  is her true mother’s deathbed, her grandmother. It is here where she mysteriously disappears.

It is Amy’s turn to be the brave sister, “Amy, so much like Ma, had eaten from frightened hare meat”, who Sylvie said needed to broaden her horizons.  Despite her fear, she travels to the Netherlands, her sister needs her! As Amy tells the story from her perspective, we see a different side of the mother that Sylvie feels never wanted her. Helena and Willem aren’t as warm and welcoming as she expected, cousin Lukas exudes a mixture of anger and sorrow, there are implications, accusations about Sylvie from the moment Amy lands. This isn’t the life she had imagined for her big sister, how could ma and pa have given her away, sent her to this cold “Grimm’s fairy-tale world?” She doesn’t really know her sister, Sylvie has never opened up about the heart of her childhood here, with this other family, “The enormity of the existence my Sylvie had before me yawns at my feet like an abyss.”  She must dissect Sylvie’s life, and every single person who has their part in it. Sylvie’s secretly unhappy, inner life is spilling open, even her enviable marriage to Jim was collapsing, her return to Holland a chance to ‘leave everything behind’ only forges her deeper into old family dynamics, roles her calculated Aunt Helena created. Her old wounds throb, the past revealed to the reader, no matter how much she has made of herself, she still feels like nothing. Entrusted to her aunt and grandmother, no one ever gave a thought that maybe the ‘better life’ robbed her of every happiness. Never understanding just what it is about her that rubs Helene the wrong way, wondering what has soured her aunt’s heart so much that the niece she has been entrusted to raise she treats more like a burden, beneath her contempt. This callousness burdens Sylvie with the insurmountable task of trying to prove her worth, long after she has been gone. But surely too there were brief moments of kindness? What of the distance within’ her real family? Do her ma and pa ever get her fully back? She wonders if they ever loved her at all.

This novel is incredibly heavy, of course it’s about the sister’s relationship but as we delve deeper into ma’s pain a raw side of the immigrant experience is exposed, even in the “curtain” between mother and daughters. Sylvie surpasses every expectation and in doing so the divide grows wider and wider between she and ma. Such strength and independence in a child makes ma fearful,  the inability to be a mother in a way other american women can, language an insurmountable obstacle, there is comfort in shrinking oneself but it’s a temporary one when the true cost is affection, bonding. Sylvie is gone again, but she never seemed to ever return to begin with, and it is an earth shattering reality that things would have been different, had they only kept her in the first place. Just what was her goal?

Amy doesn’t really know her sister, failed to understand how having another family entirely affected her, for better or for worse. Jim and Sylvie fought before she disappeared? Why would she run away? Helena accuses her of taking her family inheritance, but Sylvie wanted for nothing, why would she? Greed fills Helena’s heart more than concern for Sylvie who could be hurt somewhere, all alone, in need of rescue. Just how did she survive this cold woman who raised her? What does she know? What of Grandma’s ‘jewels’, who did she intend have them, if they even exist at all? Who is suspect? What is Amy missing? Maybe Sylvie isn’t the only one she didn’t really know at all.

The police don’t seem to give Amy hope, and Amy knows in her heart it’s time to ‘step up’ and be the sister Sylvie has always needed. She must shuck of her inborn cowardice. “Sylvie, where are you?” She must discover the who Sylvie is first. Every revelation gives rise to more questions. Anyone could have been involved, no one is as they seem, certainly not Sylvie’s husband Jim who has his own deep secrets and is unraveling, nor even Sylvie herself. How could so many terrible things have been happening in her big sister’s life, kept so neatly contained, that Amy didn’t see the fissures? How could two sister envy each other’s lives without understanding the pain humming beneath the surface? How did Amy miss so much of her family’s history, the bitterness?  She is navigating Sylvie’s Netherlands, hoping to feel her big sister return to her in this way, trying to uncover what chased her away. She may discover a heart that was more vulnerable than Sylvie ever let on, a woman far more fragile than her bravado implied. Love can sneak in even when hate wants to assert dominance, all of our intentions can destroy the very family we seek to protect. What about ma and pa? Surely the blame must be smeared all over them too, for ever sending Sylvie away. She must discover the one thing that has led to her sister’s mysterious vanishing, if she ever hopes to find her. But she may discover a darker family history, exposing long buried shame… will there be any love left for forgiveness.

Published June 2019  Somehow I kept putting off this review to meet with the release date, and am kicking myself for not posting it!

William Marrow

Harper Collins

 

 

 

 

 

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The Worst Kind of Want: A Novel by Liska Jacobs

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I have not thought about my wants in so long that the flood of them makes me light-headed.

Priscilla “Cilla” is only 43 but feels like life has aged her beyond her years, living with her mother whom is now in rehabilitation at a nursing home. Mother, needy, bitter and resentful, forcing her to placate her demands. Every visit feels like drudgery, reminding her of how stifling her life has become. Since the death of Cilla’s sister, her brother-in-law has lived with their daughter, her niece Hannah in Italy who is acting out, ‘Cilla, please. You will come, won’t you?’ It’s been a year since Hannah lost her mother, surely acting out is noraml, right? Yet if she goes, it would be an escape from the dullness of her life, but the idea of caring for yet another person is the kiss of death. Yet even the thought of ‘babysitting’ her fifteen year old niece is better than dealing with her impossible mother and her demands. It’s been a full year of dealing with her mother’s bottomless grief and ill health. Then there is her longtime boyfriend Guy, who spends his time directing tv series, once her own deceased father’s protégé who hungered after her all those years ago. He is distracted by all those young actresses dripping in dewy youth. How can she possibly shine by comparison when time takes it’s toll on the body? Italy it is!

Hannah is becoming quite the young woman, and with the son of family friends Donato’s attention she beams with youth and joy, infusing Cilla with life. Spending time with the pair feels like a seduction what with all the confidence, the freedom, indulging in the pleasures of Italy. Cilla is meant to be looking out for Hannah, keeping her on the straight and narrow, instead she is the one throwing caution off the cliff. Her adult confidence, and Hollywood ties makes her fascinating in Donato’s eyes.He longs to impress her, he is beautiful, could himself be a celebrity, right? Basking in the days and nights beside them feels erotic, as if she is going through a second awakening by accompanying the pair through their own. If she was a ‘better’ woman, she wouldn’t smudge the lines between moral and immoral, she wouldn’t succumb to the charm of a teenage boy but her body is so hungry, and the chemistry is electric, who would it really hurt if no one ever knows?

The scenery itself begs to be explored, it urges release, to abandon one’s every inhibition. She hasn’t given a thought to her own desires, needs in so long, how can anyone blame her for finally thinking of herself first? She should stop what is happening, but she doesn’t want to deny herself one second of it. “Romans love to have a good time at any age…”, so when in Rome… Why should she ‘behave’, nothing interesting comes of that, being old doesn’t make a person dead, we still long for the thrill of things.

Being around Hannah takes her back to the beginning of her relationship with the much older Guy. When she was ‘no longer a little girl but not yet a woman’, same phase her niece has entered, playing grownup. How easy it is to play at being a sexual creature, emulating womanhood. The carelessness of her own parents in the past, too much freedom for she and her sister,Hannah’s mother, youthful flirtations gone too far. Maybe Cilla isn’t the best choice in caging a teenager’s impulses, especially when in her shoes she didn’t cage her own. Maybe despite being so much older now, she is just as likely to jump into the lion’s mouth.

A woman will be punished for letting herself go, for indulging. Cilla isn’t going to be the dutiful aunt, she is going to taste life while she still can even if it could hurt those she is there to protect. Like so many human beings, despite what we know will follow, we still act on impulses. “How easy it is to ignore the darkness in the distance.” All she has is here and now, to focus on what could come of her ‘reckless abandon’ would be a betrayal, especial to herself. But indulgence and deception always comes at a price, is considered downright criminal when a woman of a certain age misbehaves. It’s an indulgent and shameful novel, as most things we know better than to partake of are and engaging because of it. We know the entire time, this isn’t going to end well.

Publication Date: November 5, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir by Jaquira Díaz

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And the girls I ran with? Half of them I was secretly in love with. Street girls, who were escaping their own lives, trading the chaos of home for the chaos of the streets.

In Jaquira Díaz’s memoir, Ordinary Girls, readers dig into the influences that shape the life of a young juvenile delinquent. She is more than that, she is first a confused, lonely, little girl who lives with a mother whose mental illness is spiraling into a deeper, darker place. As she grows up, she escapes her broken home or the ‘chaos of home’ and takes it out on the streets, with her tough as nails approach. She finds a sisterhood of girls who have suffered as much, or worse, and makes them family of the heart. It is all about escapism, what else is there in poverty and abuse then reckless abandon? What else is there for them to do but get high, drunk, fight til they draw blood or find themselves knocked out?

Living with a parent that suffers from schizophrenia is difficult even when you have extended family and friends, doctors willing to help, but imagine when the children are left to wonder at their mother’s strange paranoia, behaviors, rages? When a mother’s delusions are real to a child, and no one explains or fixes anything, what is to become of you? Worse, one who is a drug addict on top of it all. How can there be stability when the rest of the adults have fled? From her early childhood in Puerto Rico to their move to Miami, Florida- Jaquira is subject to very adult situations, and always leaving behind the love and support of her beloved abuela, the one person who loves and cares for her. At a young age the shock of what her father sells (drugs) makes no sense to her. Naturally with the people who come around, the children are exposed to the foulest of behavior. She doesn’t know any better about how poor they are, everyone seems to be just as bad off. The shock of violence in the streets is even more horrific, how can anyone maintain their innocence in such a place? Government housing projects full of shootings, stabbings, drug raids, and mouths full of stories that plant the seeds of terror in any child. You toughen up or you don’t make it out alive. You learn fast.

Her parents destructive love, her mother is a woman who ‘obsessively, violently’ loves Jaquira’s Papi (father) who is nothing short of a womanizer, seems fated to ruin. Was it his disinterest in her mother, the crack or coke that caused her to hear voices, or was it this very love that destroyed her? Certainly it was a catalyst, and it made life for Díaz nothing short of hell. Can kids get used to mugs flying over their heads during their parents jealous rages, fights? Doesn’t it follow then that maybe her brother’s bullying and meanness might be born through it too? Like it or not, we learn from our families, and our environment. It’s hard to imagine a softer world if yours is loud, painful. It’s hard to serve kindness when all you have been served is bitter, spitting hatred while your belly and heart rumble for sustenance.

Split between families she has one loving, accepting abuela and another grandmother, the white one, who made  feel ashamed of her ethnicity, using her hair as a means to punish her for being ‘other than’. She made sure Jaquira knew she would never be as beautiful as her mother’s side. Strange to think there was more violence in that than all the ugliness she is submerged in, but that really cut me to read. This woman who should lift her grandchild up, make her proud of every cell of her body instead is the first to really make her feel that who she is supposed to be is shameful, low. It’s the same with fear, the adults are supposed to assuage a child’s deepest terrors, not become the monster.

Then Mami begins to see a man, lurking, looming like a murder waiting to happen. Her terror hums inside of Jaquira, all she wants is her parents to be together again, for her to be safe and loved with her abuela but god or the universe doesn’t seem to listen to the cries of a child like her.  Just like everything else not meant for children such as she and her siblings, wishes and prayers are ignored. Her father comes and goes, and they behave as if he had never left. “The five of us were the kind of poor you could feel in your bones, in your teeth, in your stomach.” You can only imagine such a poor, if it’s never been your reality.

She is never happy nor in a stable environment for long, her mother steals her back and forces her madness on them- worse, Papi doesn’t seem to care, no one is ever coming to save them. It’s only a matter of time before she grows up, much too fast, and as a teenager becomes a hood rat. Then it was a desire for a violence she could never come back from, because she and her friends would never be ordinary girls who make their sadness seen through “sleeping pills and slit wrists”, if she is going to self-destruct it’s going to be a wild explosion! Beat downs, drugs, gangbangers, court dates, this is how someone will finally take notice, maybe her papi? This is how she lets her age out of it’s cage.

Must Jaquira remain in this state and either end up imprisoned or one day as mad as her mother? Or worse, dead? This is a tale of sadness so dark and overflowing that it becomes rage. This isn’t who she wants to be, she isn’t going to accept this battered, beaten down version of a girl. She will have the last word in who she is! She will fight and make it out, but not without mourning for those who didn’t. Through writing this very book she is reaching those who need to hear that someone has been there, she is a voice in the dark shouting alongside you, someone who wants to see all the girls, who are anything but ordinary, crawl out of the ruins.

A heavy, brutal journey.

Publication Date: October 29, 2019

Algonquin Books