Chinese American author Jean Kwok writes not just about her cultural identity as an emigre but about her life experiences, including as a professional ballroom dancer. Kwok’s books have risen up the bestseller lists and received many accolades, and even appear in academic reading lists. So The Leftover Woman has a lot to live up to.
The story begins in China 15 years ago and moves forward from there. Jasmine Yang is 14 when she is effectively sold to her husband, Wen, a party official with prospects, because he can pay the bride-price. He says he loves Jasmine but gradually becomes more controlling and eventually says that he will never let her go.
Jasmine has experienced miscarriages in the past so when she gives birth and Wen tells her the baby didn’t make it, she believes him. Eventually, she finds out the girl she thought died was actually taken from her and sold to an American couple. Jasmine doesn’t love Wen and goes in search of her child, leaving her husband and heading to the USA.
In present-day New York, Rebecca is unable to have children but is now the proud mother of Fiona, known as Fifi, the Chinese girl the Whitneys adopted. Rebecca and Brandon are white, affluent, working parents. Rebecca has a high powered high pressure job in publishing. They employ a nanny for Fifi and although Rebecca is jealous of her easy relationship with Fifi, she knows Lucy is a godsend. However, when things become strained at work, it begins to impinge upon the marriage and family life in their household.
Jasmine arrives in an unfamiliar landscape and has to find work while figuring out how to find and get her daughter back. There’s no easy way for an undocumented migrant to make money in America and Jasmine is faced with some tough choices. Can she stay safe and find a way to be with her child in this new country?
We are made aware at the start of the novel that something terrible will happen, so we know that at some point Wen will reappear. His threat was no idle boast. So as things build to that climax The Leftover Woman is full of suspense and anticipation. All the while it explores issues of identity, family and love.
The novel takes a while to get going as a thriller, dipping into the contrasting lifestyles and backgrounds of the characters and details of their lives, which is all relevant. The different lives and inequalities between Jasmine and Rebecca are important; there’s no easy right and wrong. The baby was stolen and illegally sold but the poignant truth is that they both love Fifi, the child each woman sees as her own.
There’s a big reveal half way through the story that we don’t think will come as a surprise to most readers but guessing this doesn’t spoil the plot. Perhaps Kwok even wrote it this way to allow the reader to get ahead of things and spice up the sedate unfolding of the plot line. As the tale gathers pace the tension mounts.
This is a complex novel that covers a lot of ground. It’s about about the migrant experience and Kwok is exceptionally good at busting the myth that it’s easy to arrive and settle in a new country – as if arriving is the be all and end all. It reflects on the iniquities of China’s one child policy and the trade in babies – illegal adoption.
Jean Kwok explores motherhood, cultural differences, racial bias and inequality. The two women are beautifully nuanced, Rebecca for instance is capable of being embarrassed in company by her child, who doesn’t easily fit in at a garden party. Whatever you believe to be right, you will appreciate this story is not black and white. It’s a powerful novel, a strong drama and a decent thriller. The ending has its poignancy but it’s ultimately an uplifting and insightful read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars