From bar mitzvahs in Bethesda, to gin-soaked reminisces in Jakarta, the diversity of backdrops in this wistful tale of a foreign service family’s years in Asia is a major factor in this novel’s charm.
The focal setting is 1950s Taipei. The central characters inhabit an expat bubble that somewhat restricts their perspectives on everyday life, so the glimpses we get are tinged with an exoticism that subtly conveys feelings of displacement.
Most of the time, the Norrell family’s rootlessness is not cast in negative light. With the exception of her relocation to Hong Kong with her brother Jordy after their time in Taiwan, there is little in the way of bitterness in the narrator Lauren’s reflections on her itinerant childhood and similarly peripatetic professional career.
Where recrimination does creep in, it is directed against the eponymous antiheroine, the narcissistic matriarch whose whimsy was partly responsible for the upheaval. The implication is that boarding the kids in Hong Kong was as much about the opportunity to jet over for shopping weekends and clandestine liaisons as it was educational considerations.
For all its grit and grime, its festering benjo ditches, sweat-drenched coolies and dog-snatching degenerates, Taipei is recalled with affection. As Lauren relays her family’s story — interlacing her narrative with extracts from her late mother’s letters — we discover that Taipei was about the closest thing to home the Norrells had.
There are some wonderful evocations of the city’s sights and sounds — realized with authenticity. A passage describing the enrapturement that the Western neopyhte feels with the “the ornament and symbolism and gaudiness” of the temples is one example:
“The high-relief ceramic friezes set along the cornices, brightly glazed polychrome narratives of dragons and elephants and battles, emperors and courtiers in splendid raiment and ladies tripping over arched bridges. The carving and filigree, the fretworked wooden shutters, the elegant colonnades of slim, round, red-lacquered posts supporting slim, round, red-lacquered beams.”
In fact, all of the many periods and places that feature in the story are convincingly depicted, no matter how fleeting their appearances. Honolulu, Sydney, Tokyo, and Saigon are brought to life through deft touches that convey the essence of the milieu.
This does not always involve intricate descriptions of locals or locales. Vietnam, for example, is recalled through contrasting experiences: Lily’s heady shopping trips, Lauren’s work with refugees on the border with Cambodia, and Jordy’s jaded account of his involvement in the war and Operation Frequent Wind — the evacuation of the Saigon.
Thematically, there is also much to admire about Lerner’s work. Race, sex and gender are handled subtly and insightfully. While Lily and, by extension, the Norrells are no longer practicing after year away from their small-town synagogue, Judaism continues to play a role, with feelings of otherness, if not outright discrimination, always in the background.
The character of Coletta — who as an African American woman in the Far East is as peculiar to the rest of the diplomatic community as the local culture — is especially interesting. Excluded from social events and whispered about with casual racism, she finds in Lily something of a kindred spirit.
Yet, even Lily is a product of her era and upbringing. Expressing astonishment at Coletta’s fluent Mandarin, Lily adds “but then her English is extremely well spoken, too and if you only talked with her on the phone, you wouldn’t think she was different at all.”
Perhaps most impressive is the portrayal of the shadowy world of CIA spooks masquerading as USAID officials that exists in parallel with soirees, boating excursions, and charitable endeavors. Readers familiar with the history of Civil Air Transport, the CIA-owned airline that supported covert Cold War operations in Asia, will find the details of the organization’s presence in Taiwan and Vietnam plausibly conveyed.
FAMILY OF STRANGERS
Lauren’s position as an unreliable narrator who frequently questions her memories or interpretations of them only reinforces the air of uncertainty.
No character is more obscured by the wisps of intrigue than Rocky, the “gorgeous” Macau-born charmer. While it is assumed that he is a covert operative like Sid Norrell, the family patriarch, Rocky’s exact status is never determined. When Jordy recalls him “introducing us to the customer” at a Bangkok airbase, Lauren is confused:
“‘Rocky is the customer, don’t you think?’
“‘It’s just a manner of speaking, Laur. We’re all on the same side.’”
The same goes for Rocky’s relationship with Lily — suggestions that they were lovers remain unconfirmed.
As for the Norrells themselves, the overall image is of a family of strangers, even to one another — Sid the phlegmatic spook, Jordy the tragic enigma, and Lily, inconstant and sybaritic. It is through Lauren, most of all, that feelings of restlessness and dislocation pervade the text. There are also frequent hints of bitterness in Lauren’s efforts to balance pointed observations about her mother’s superficiality with caveats.
Reflecting on Lily’s work with orphans in Taipei, for example, Lauren speaks of her mother’s “need for recognition,” while conceding that this helped Lily “face the anguish and frustration” that came with the work. “Acclaim,” Lauren tells us, “replenished her.” But that, she suggests, shouldn’t detract from the good Lily achieved.
Of course, in admitting to such a cynical reading of her mother’s motives, Lauren colors our perceptions of Lily. As revealed through Lauren’s reflections and Lily’s letters, her mother is not the most sympathetic of characters. Recalling Lily’s frequent retelling of an “intimate” meeting with Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡), Lauren suspects embellishment:
“I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that her contact with the great lady was limited to a few seconds, nothing more than shaking hands in a receiving line.”
This ambiguity, a haziness that engulfs the text, is a strong part of the novel’s appeal. As is often the case in art — and life — much remains unanswered.
In a postscript, Lerner points out that Lily’s story is inspired by his own experiences as the child of a foreign service officer posted to Taipei in 1957 and his mother’s letters back home from that period.
Here and there, there are some historic details — or omission thereof — that a hardened Formosaphile might notice. The absence of any reference to the May 24 Incident of 1957, during which the US Embassy in Taipei was attacked, is one example. However, the general historicity of the narrative is commendable. Most importantly, the novel is seldom dull.
As such, Lily Narcissus will be an engaging read for casual readers and those with knowledge of the nebulous nature of foreign service officialdom in postwar Taiwan.
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