Country of Origin
Don Lee
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Country of Origin

Don Lee
W.W. Norton
352 pages
July 2004
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Against the background of the Iran hostage crisis and an impending political election in the United States, a young American woman goes missing in 1980's Tokyo, lost somewhere in a city of unparalleled opportunity, teeming with foreigners and entrepreneurs.

Lisa is of mixed heritage, although she appears white and is considered a gaijin by all who meet her. Like many other young women, Lisa seeks out Tokyo as the answer to her financial troubles, barely sustaining herself under the burden of student loans. From the first, she runs into difficulty, each step of her journey more dangerous, as she desperately seeks employment in the Tokyo underground of illegal workers.

The protagonists interact against the background of complex international society, one pulsing with the energetic pursuit of enterprise. However, Americans are not particularly popular in Tokyo in the 1980ís, and there is a subtle indictment of the United States and the manner in which this culture permeates Japanese life: the influx of rock and punk music that fills every waking moment of the younger generation, the ubiquitous brand names that identify everything American, and a variety of controversial social issues that saturate the new Japan.

Each of the important characters has identity issues, adding a racial element to the plot and establishing the underlying theme of race and identity that is at the heart of the novel. Countrymanís case is assigned to Tom Hurley at the US Embassy. Of mixed lineage himself, Hurley pursues his days with few commitments, interested in the Americanís disappearance only as a vehicle to maintain contact with his affair of the moment. That this woman is married to a CIA operative working undercover at the American Embassy only complicates the issue.

Hurleyís contact with his liaison in the Tokyo police department introduces the most likeable character in the novel, Kenzo Ota. The detective is divorced, a bit paranoid and insecure, his career on a fast track to nowhere. With few leads supplied by Hurley, Ito eventually blunders into the answers behind Lisaís disappearance.

What makes this mystery so intriguing is the authorís emphasis on personal isolation. Lack of identity breeds discontent, at least insofar as these characters fail to make peace with their mixed heritages, personified by Lisa Countryman. Beginning with the missing girl, each struggles with personal demons, whether fear, lack of commitment or a sense of disconnection. Their racial identities confuse the protagonistís decisions, creating a conundrum of acceptance versus personal morality.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2004

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