Searching for Sylvie Lee is a novel by Jean Kwok which focuses on the disappearance and death of the character Sylvie Lee in the Netherlands. It is split into three narratives: the mother, Amy who is the sister, and Sylvie Lee before she goes missing. I found the threads of Asian themes worked well to show the alienation and distancing that Asians face in other countries. And I felt that the story was elegant in continuing to hold tension about Sylvie’s death up until the last moments. The reports, phone calls, messages, and emails felt natural in the novel and worked to vary the way the story was told. I enjoyed the drama, suspense, and action that existed, but I felt there were a few things that didn’t work as well.
First, I think that the thread that follows the mother is too static and acts to slow down and work against the narrative. For the majority of the story, up until the last chapter where the mother is the narrator, nothing happens to her or there isn’t a driving force for her. I think Kwok may have also realized this too as the chapters with the mother are barely three pages long each. There isn’t much ground covered in those moments, and so I didn’t feel personally attached to the character. And while I realize that she can’t speak English well, I didn’t think the intentional use of improper grammar worked to enliven the character. If anything, the grammar forced the mother character into an Asian stereotype. I would’ve liked to either have seen more of the mother in moments with Willem or her own struggles, or taken her narrative thread out altogether. The only thing that would require reworking is her reveal about her affair with Willem, but that could just be added in as dialogue.
I had initially enjoyed the sayings that all the characters used that acted as direct metaphors to the situations, but I felt that there were far too many. The metaphors lost all their subtly and felt far too heavy-handed. For example, the lines, “’You guys are bad influences. Those who associate with dogs get fleas,’” are redundant even though one is a metaphor. It would make sense to me if only a single character said these lines, but the grandmother, mother, Amy, and Sylvie all say them at one point, and so it felt like their meanings were deluded.
Overall, I enjoyed the suspense and the drama that unfolded in the novel. Generally, the weaving of the narratives held up, and I found myself reading that last hundred pages in a sprint. Though, the novel doesn’t come without its faults, which I felt worked to slow down the pace and box in certain characters.
Final Rating: 3/5
In the Paris Review Issue 237 writers grapple with the existential and the absurd, sometimes to great effect, and other times missing the mark. I was particularly drawn to the first story, ‘The Beyoğlu Municipality Waste Management Orchestra’ by Kenan Orhan, where a garbage collector begins to collect instruments after the city cracks down on people’s possessions. The absurdity builds until he not only collects all the instruments for an orchestra, but also all the players. At the end, the police find out what he was doing, and so locked him up with objects that the speaker believed had also been arrested. It was a story reminiscent of dystopian novels but had a twinge of humor.
Another highlight included Ada Limón’s poem ‘Power Lines’ in which a power line crew works to remove a tree in the way. And its final lines worked beyond the piece, “Now the tree is gone. The men are gone, just a ground-down stump / where what felt like wisdom once was.”
And the third piece I felt worked elegantly was Joy Katz’s creative non-fiction essay ‘Tennis is the Opposite of Death: A Proof’, which confronted a father’s death and Katz’s mortality. Its interplay with memory, tennis, and the father-daughter relationship held an emotional urgency.
However, while those pieces were my highlights, there were some moments that felt incongruous and sometimes didn’t work. I was particularly hesitant with the subject matter of ‘Rainbow Rainbow’ by Lydia Conklin in which a pair of teenagers fawn over an adult. It then broaches uncomfortable territory when one of the teenagers is fondled by the adult. And while I’m sure Conklin meant well in the conveyance of the adult realizing what she did was wrong, but it didn’t have a strong enough impact to excuse the actions beforehand (and maybe that was intended). Though, the damage of the adult didn’t seem to register or truly play out for the characters, and so it felt like a piece whose characters thought nothing but positively about the encounter.
I was also left underwhelmed by the story ‘The Lottery in Almeria’ by Camille Bordas, which had an initially interesting premise with the lottery and the inherited house of the father. Though, I felt that it fizzled out when the relationship with the sister was not really vibrant. I thought that the textbook writer writing the beginning of the story worked well, though it didn’t seem to follow through in the end.
There were some stunners, but also some stories that didn’t work too well for me.
Final Rating: 3/5
The Spring 2021 issue of American Short Fiction contains seven short stories from such writers as Anthony Veasna So to Whitney Collins. While this wasn’t a themed issue, I noticed that about half of the stories focused on the loss or vacuum of an absent father. It was interesting to see the way each character approached and processed loss differently.
Though, for me I think the best story was ‘How Soon Until We’re Deadly?’ by Kevin Moffett. It detailed the intervening moments after his father’s death, and the karate dojo he attended to fill that fatherly role. The voice of the story was vibrant, with moments of humor sprinkled in. The speaker, at the point of writing the story, had already been able to reflect and understand what happened, which gave a strong anchor for me to hold onto.
I didn’t particularly enjoy other stories in the issue. I felt that ‘Bitten’ by Holiday Reinhorn was too surface level and relied too much on pop culture. And ‘The Get-Go’ by Elizabeth McCracken had awkward sentences and didn’t bring anything fresh to the conversation of loss.
Final Rating: 3/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.