Reviews & Interviews

“The mercilessly absorbing Country of Origin does many things that most novels—not to speak of first novels—can only hope to do: it renders a time and place that feel both meticulously researched and swoonily atmospheric; delivers up complex and sympathetic protagonists; poses questions about race and identity that resonate throughout the story and beyond it, and conjures up such a prickling aura of mystery that the reader is left helpless to desist. Be warned: you may find yourself canceling plans, shirking work, or neglecting your children to finish this book.”
—Jennifer Egan, author of Look at Me

“Japan seems the perfect carnavalesque, opaque background for people trying to discover or to forget their identities and their personal truths. Don Lee’s novel is upsetting, amusing, filled with surprises, and wonderfully well-written.”
—Ann Beattie, author of Park City

“Tokyo sex clubs. CIA drones. Hapas and missing black-white girls. This is a strange, sexy, and perilous world Lee has painted for us, where nobody stays put in one nation or one race and nobody’s identity remains fixed. A profound, gripping, and elegant book.”
—Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia

“Fans of Don Lee’s terrific stories will recognize with pleasure in Country of Origin the intelligence and humor that he brings to bear on the complex issues of race and culture. His characters, whether Japanese or American, Polish or ‘and/or,’ are richly imagined, and his plot is both deadly serious and deeply entertaining. This is a wonderful novel.”
Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture

Country of Origin is a remarkable novel, a work of art and a work of entertainment, profoundly enjoyable and deeply resonant. It captures the identity crisis of observer/participant research, while at the same time ambitiously exploring issues of self-invention in the face of parentage, race, and class. It is, I believe, a real achievement.”
—Fred Leebron, author of Six Figures

Booklist [Starred] It's 1980, a hard-fought election year in which the Iranian hostage crisis plays an increasingly critical role. But that intrigue exists a world away from Foreign Service junior officer Tom Hurley, a cipher hiding a cowardly episode of treachery in his past. He's coasting through a dull-but-cushy appointment to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and targeting a CIA operative's wife for a bit of dangerous fun. She blipped onto Hurley's radar screen by asking him about the seemingly routine case of Lisa Countryman, a U.S. tourist who disappeared after ditching an under-the-table job at a fly-by-night English language school. The ensuing investigation takes Hurley and clueless police detective Kenzo Ota into Tokyo's seediest corners. It also forces both men to confront their many human failings, and possibly even overcome them. Issues of race, class, and national identity drive this clear-eyed story of closure, redemption, and carving out a place in the world. Lee expertly weaves a tiny new pleasure into every page, from fascinating forays into Japanese culture to wry lines in the vein of "People don't have affairs to get out of their marriages. They have them to prolong them." As satisfying as it is unsettling, this quiet literary triumph eschews plot pyrotechnics for fully realized, deeply felt characters who bumble and struggle their way toward grace much like the rest of us. Frank Sennett      Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly [Starred] Ploughshares editor Lee uses the racial homogeneity of Japan as a stark backdrop to this elegant first novel, a follow-up to his story collection, Yellow. Set in Tokyo in 1980, the book centers on the disappearance of Lisa Countryman, a half-Japanese, half-black Berkeley graduate student who goes to Japan to research the "sad, brutal reign of conformity" for her dissertation and, perhaps more importantly, embark on an identity quest. Her mixed-race background gives her an exotic beauty, and after a teaching job falls through, it lands her a job as a hostess girl at a Tokyo men’s club. Echoes of Countryman’s identity crisis ring through the lives of all the characters affected by her disappearance. When she vanishes, it is first brought to the attention of Tom Hurley, a vain and careless junior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy who tells people he’s Hawaiian, though he’s really half-Korean and half-white. The case is turned over to Kenzo Ota, a glum, divorced police inspector, who spent three hard years of his adolescence in Missouri. Convinced that Countryman’s case could be just what he needs to put his career back on track, Ota resolves to find out what happened to her. The story of Countryman’s time in Japan and her efforts to learn who she is unfolds parallel to Ota’s efforts to learn her fate. Through the interlocking stories of Ota, Countryman and Hurley, Lee discourses on race, identity, the Japanese sex trade, social conventions and law. Sharply observed, at turns trenchantly funny and heartbreakingly sad, this novel could be the breakout book for Lee. Agent, Maria Massie, Witherspoon Associates. (July)      Forecast: The novel’s insights into the Japanese sex industry make it a grittier counterpoint to Memoirs of a Geisha, and its investigations of race and identity might, for some, recall White Teeth. Five-city author tour.      Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Some mystery authors manage to create works of entertaining literary fiction, but fewer are successful at using the form to examine social themes. What makes Lee's (Yellow) work so satisfying is that while the mystery is used as a frame to support issues of race, exploitation, and identity, the narrative as a whole doesn't collapse under the weight of this literary ambition. The story takes place in Japan at the close of 1980 and is effectively told from the perspective of three characters Lisa Countryman, a young American postgraduate of African American and Asian descent who goes missing after getting mixed up in the country's sex clubs; Tom Hurley, the junior officer at the U.S. consulate assigned to her case, who is of mixed Asian American heritage and as a matter of convenience tells acquaintances that he is Hawaiian; and lonely, beleaguered Japanese detective Kenzo Ota, who ultimately undertakes the effort to locate Lisa. The characters are victims of both perception and their own defense mechanisms, and their emotional responses are consistently convincing. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.—Edward Keane, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn, NY

Kirkus Reviews A handful of restless, intertwining lives in 1980 Tokyo. Tom Hurley, Junior Officer in American Citizens Services at the American Embassy in Tokyo, receives a frantic call from a Richmond, Virginia, woman named Susan Countryman. Susan's sister Lisa, a graduate student in anthropology visiting Tokyo, hasn't contacted home in over a month, and Susan fears foul play. There's not much Tom can do, but he conducts a (fruitless) cursory investigation and gets in touch with the local police, who foist the dull assignment off on obsessive/compulsive Assistant Inspector Kenzo Ota. Lee's narrative jumps from Tom to Kenzo to Lisa, who, out of money and teaching opportunities, takes several hostess jobs at a series of gentlemen's clubs, each shabbier than the last. Womanizing Tom, on the rebound from a fling with coworker Sarah, enters slowly into an affair with bored Julia Tinsley, wife of CIA officer Vincent Kitamura. Their conversations about Lisa's case provide a pretext for growing intimacy, and an accident from which they unwisely flee bonds them in silence. Insomniac Kenzo, at first engaging in psychological warfare with his landlady Saotome over the suitability of his apartment, eventually opts instead to kill her with kindness. Deeper layers of longing and hidden agendas gradually come to the fore. Kenzo's wife left him several years ago and emigrated to America. She's recently returned to Japan with a son named Simon. Realizing the boy must be his, Kenzo begins working out a plan to meet him. Lisa may be working in the clubs not because she's down-and-out, but because she's doing research. Tom, breaking with his usual love-and-leave pattern, falls Julia, becoming more obsessed with her themore ambivalence she displays. Thriller conventions draw the reader, like the characters, into a gallery of human enigmas. First-novelist Lee (Yellow, stories, 2001), the longtime editor of Ploughshares, leaves no fingerprints: his cool, precise prose captures his characters without overexplaining them. Agent: Maria Massie