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
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.