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COUNTRY OF ORIGIN by Don Lee

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN

By Don Lee

Pub Date: July 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-393-05812-3
Publisher: Norton

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 the more 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.