Swimming Back to Trout River

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Linda Rui Feng
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 2021 (read May 2021)

I haven’t been seeing that much buzz about this book, so I have no idea how it got on my radar, but I found the name super compelling. Then when I read the plot and saw it was blurbed by Jean Kwok, I was super interested in reading it. 

What an understated book. It’s a simple plot with simple storytelling, but I really enjoyed it. I really like Linda Rui Feng’s style of writing and thought it was really lyrical storytelling about a family that becomes separated by time and circumstance. From the synopsis, this is the story of two parents who immigrate to America and leave their daughter with their parents in law, promising to come back for her on her 12th birthday. But the daughter, Junie, loves her life in Trout River and doesn’t know that her parents have become estranged in their new country.

The story delivered on this plot, but it’s really only a small part of what this book covers. I expected the book to mostly be about Junie, but it’s actually primarily about her parents and their connections to music. It’s not so much a multi generational story as a story of her parents growing up, their journey together, and then their journey apart. Her father, Momo, grows up in Trout River and is one of the first people to succeed and get out of the village, leaving to get a university education. There he meets Dawn, a budding violinist who teaches him to play ahead of China’s cultural revolution. Finally, he eventually meets his wife, Cassia, a nurse who has experienced her own loss through the revolution. 

Like I said, it’s an understated novel about growing up and subtly addresses the impact the cultural revolution had on many of its citizens, without being a heavy novel solely about the revolution. It’s about family, the ones we make and the ones we choose, and who we might be if events in our lives had gone differently. It’s not a long book and made for a really enjoyable read. 

The only part I didn’t really like was the ending. I found it very abrupt and would have preferred to spend a bit more time getting to know Junie rather than just her parents. That said, I loved Dawn’s character and even though she wasn’t a part of the main family, she was my favourite part of the book! Check it out if you’re looking for something a little different.

Brooklyn

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Colm Toibin
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2009 (read Apr. 2021)

I have so many thoughts on this book. I’m not a big movie goer, but I saw Brooklyn in theatres when it came out at the recommendation of a friend and fell in love with the movie. I didn’t even realize it was a book until several years later – but it didn’t have the best reviews on Goodreads, so I decided to give it a pass. About a month ago I stumbled across a copy in a second hand bookstore and decided to revisit the story and give the book a try.

The movie stays very close to the book, so it’s hard to separate one from the other. As reviews suggest, the writing is good, but not great. The author has a very ‘matter of fact’ way of telling the story that can seem a little bland next to some other books. That said, I enjoyed the book a lot more than I thought I would – Toibin is still a good writer, it’s just not the kind of moving writing that you give 5 stars too. Even so, I found the story just as compelling as the movie and flew through it in just 2 days.

In some ways I preferred the book and enjoyed getting Eilis’ internal monologue, but in other ways I thought the movie was stronger. Eilis has an indifference to Tony in the book that doesn’t quite sell this as a love story as strongly as the movie does. The most notable difference for me was the last part of the book when Eilis returns to Ireland. The first three quarters of the movie follow the book almost verbatim, but the story diverges slightly in the last quarter. The ending of the book is almost jarring in its suddenness, but that may be because I was expecting it to continue based on the movie. 

But before I get into the spoiler part of the review, I just want to talk about why I love this story. It may not be 5 star writing, but in my opinion, it’s definitely a 5 star story. Brooklyn is set following WWII, we’re not told the exact year, but based on the setting, others have dated it to the early 1950’s. Eilis grew up in a small town outside Dublin and has spent her whole life in Ireland. She studies book keeping, but as a young adult, she struggles to find meaningful work. Her sister, Rose, makes contact with an Irish priest in New York who offers to sponsor Eilis to America. He arranges her papers and finds her work in a department store and accommodations in a boarding house.

Eilis is overwhelmed with the pace at which the decision is made for her to go to New York and feels she has no other choice. She’s not looking forward to leaving Rose and her mother, but she acknowledges there’s very little for her in Ireland. So she boards a boat to America and settles in an Irish community in Brooklyn. It’s very difficult for her at first and she becomes homesick, but eventually she settles in and starts to build a life for herself. She attends Brooklyn College for book keeping and meets an Italian named Tony who starts to make her feel at home.

I love this story because it is such an accurate portrayal of how it feels to leave home and make your life elsewhere. Even though the story is set in the 1950’s, its a story so many can relate to. I grew up in a small city that has also been heavily influenced by Irish culture and while I wasn’t personally forced to leave to find work, many of my family members and to an extent, my husband, were forced to seek opportunity elsewhere. While my motivation for leaving was different from Eilis, I could relate with so much of what she went through. Toibin captures so well the heartbreak of leaving your home behind and the challenge of feeling you can longer share a part of yourself with anyone. Eilis goes through many struggles, but she doesn’t want to burden her mother and sister with her pain, so she keeps it to herself. She feels she has no one that she can share her true self with until she meets Tony.

I don’t want to go too much further and potentially spoil the story for someone, so I’ll just say that I think this a story anyone can enjoy and would highly recommend to anyone who has left one home behind for another. It’s definitely a white immigration story – the struggles Eilis faces are almost laughable to what today’s immigrants experience, so definitely read those immigration stories too.

But now let’s get into more of the SPOILER part of the review.
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Like I said above, the book doesn’t sell this as a love story quite as strongly as the movie does. That’s fine because I think the love story is secondary to Eilis’ personal experience, but it is a little disappointing to read. Eilis is lukewarm to Tony throughout most of the book, but slowly grows to love him. I definitely love Tony, but he is somewhat problematic and I wasn’t totally sold on how Toibin portrays Eilis’ feelings towards Tony. Eilis really did need Tony – she needed someone to share herself with. She keeps to herself a lot and struggles to fit in with the women she boards with, so when she connects with Tony, he is very much a lifeline to her. She’s reluctant in love, but I think it’s more a part of her character than her feelings about Tony. It just takes her a while to really warm up to him. Overall I was impressed with how Toibin communicates Eilis’ story, but there were definitely a few instances where Eilis’ internal thoughts didn’t jive with me. It was only a handful of times, but I did find myself thinking, “this is a man writing how HE thinks a young woman would think, rather than how I think Eilis would actually think” (if that makes sense).

Tony pressures Eilis into marrying him because he’s afraid she won’t come back from Ireland otherwise. It’s definitely a legitimate fear, but sad for both of them that they don’t trust their love enough to really test it. More disappointing of course is Eilis’ relationship with Jim when she returns to Ireland. This relationship is absolutely essential to the story, but Eilis’ indifference to Tony in the book as compared to the movie was a little upsetting to me. I didn’t remember her actually kissing Jim in the movie (or at least not more than once), whereas in the book she pretty much has a full on relationship with him and reflects that she regrets marrying Tony. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love how this dilemma is presented to Eilis. Suddenly everything she ever wanted is available to her in Ireland. She reflects on why life couldn’t have been like this for her 2 years ago before she was forced to go to America, but she also has to acknowledge that America helped her to grow in so many ways and is largely responsible for the success she’s now able to have in Ireland. But in my opinion the movie better presents the dilemma in having to choose between these two lives. Because in the book Eilis openly regrets her marriage to Tony, it’s a little disappointing to then see her return to that life anyways. With both the book and the movie ultimately having the same ending, I definitely prefer the movie. One of my favourite scenes from the movie is when Eilis boards the boat back to America and mentors the new Irish girl about her lived experience. It’s so moving and more cathartic than how Toibin opts to end the book. Maybe the book is more accurate in the heartbreak of her decision, but the movie definitely provides the catharsis.

I did still like Eilis’ reflections on her life in Brooklyn in the book though. She describes how it seems like a hazy dream to her now that’s returned to Ireland. I thought it was so accurate how when surrounded by people you used to know, the experiences you lived without them almost seem to disappear. Her mother and friends thought she was glamorous upon her return, but they had little interest in what actually happened to her in Brooklyn. This is accurate to my own experiences.

I’ve been away from home for a lot longer than Eilis, but aside from my parents, I generally find my friends don’t have a whole lot of interest in my life in BC. It’s not that they don’t care, I think it’s just that it’s no longer a shared experience between us, so it’s easier for them to talk about their own lives because those lives exist in a setting we can at least both relate to. It’s also a struggle because despite how much you grow, you often remain in stasis for those friends (as they do for you as well). Because of the distance it’s hard for you to grow together now and so you become stuck as former versions of yourself.

As much as I love the movie ending over the book ending. I did love the last thought that Eilis has on her way back to America. How the fact that “she has gone back to Brooklyn” is something that Jim will be upset about for awhile, but how over time it will become something that means less and less to him, while it will become everything to her. The movie ends with the line “and you realize, that this is where your life is”, which is also accurate. Despite the heartbreak of repeatedly saying goodbye to your friends and family every time you see them, the truth is that you have built a life somewhere else, and that’s okay.

Infinite Country

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Patricia Engel
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2021 (read Apr. 2021 on Audible)

I decided to read Infinite Country because I’ve been seeing a lot of good reviews and the narrator in the audiobook sample sounded excellent! I’m so glad I picked it up because I ended up really liking it. I found it mildly confusing to keep track of the characters at the beginning, but this was a really moving story about how it feels to be divorced from your homeland and the struggles mixed-status families face in staying connected to one another.

Infinite Country is split between Colombia and America and tells the story of a family who move to America and overstay their visas. Elena and Mauro never intended to stay in America, but the uncertainty of returning to Colombia and the fact that some of their children are now American-born, they decide to stay. Eventually they become separated – with half the family returning to Colombia and the other half living undocumented in the States. 

Like the book, I’m going to keep my review short. The story had some interesting plot points – especially with the part of the family living in Colombia – but at the end of the day it’s a simple story about the trauma many families experience in trying to immigrate to America. Nothing in this story really surprised me (except for the bad thing Talia does), it’s a story I feel like I’ve heard many times before. Families that seek a better life and are forced to live in poverty and taken advantage of because of their fear of deportation. But I loved this book because it is deeply humanizing. We get to spend time with each family member and experience each of their longings and struggles. I really connected with each of the characters, especially Mauro, and I was moved by their tenacity.

Immigration forces everyone to make tough choices and I really appreciated this in-depth look at its impact on one family. At less than 200 pages, I read this in two sittings and definitely recommend it for everyone! 

Transcendent Kingdom

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Sep 2020 (read Nov. 2020)

To Date, Gyasi’s first book, Homegoing, is the highest ranked book my book club has read – and we’ve been reading a book a month since 2012. So I was super excited to pick up Yaa Gyasi’s new book for our November meeting.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different from Homegoing, but in the best possible way. Homegoing is a wonderful piece of multi-generational, historical fiction, while Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply introspective look at grief, addiction, mental health, religion, and the challenges of being an immigrant. I could see how some fans of Homegoing might be disappointed with Transcendent Kingdom, but I loved that the author tried something new in this book and I think she really showcased her versatility as an author. So even though this book is getting most of its press because of Homegoing, try not to let Homegoing influence your expectations.

Gifty is a PhD candidate who has studied medicine at both Harvard and Stanford. She’s been studying addiction and whether there’s a neurological way to break the cycle through lab experiments with mice. Her studies are driven by her own tragic past as her brother, Nana, was addicted to opioids. Her family immigrated to America from Ghana before she was born and she’s always had to walk the line between two worlds and cultures.

Meanwhile, her mother shows up at her apartment after undergoing her own emotional breakdown and spends weeks in Gifty’s bed battling depression. Her mother had a similar struggle with depression 20 years prior, after Nana’s death. Like the last time, Gifty is determined to help lift her mother out of her pit of depression, but has absolutely no idea how to help her. As she tries to encourage her mother to reignite her faith, she is reminded of her childhood and the deep-seated role religion and spirituality played in her own life.

I don’t think this was a perfect book. I think the structure could have used a little more work and I would have liked to see some of the themes developed further. Gyasi tackles a lot of issues in this short book and I’m not sure she was able to do them all justice in just 260 pages. That said, life and grief and mental illness are all messy. Healing is not linear and it does not fit into a nice like hallmark-movie narrative. I felt the story ended too soon – I wanted to see more of a resolution to some of the themes – but I also appreciated that grief and depression are things that we carry with us for many years and that though we all seek catharsis and closure, we don’t always get it.

That said, while I did feel her exploration of her Mom’s depression could have been a little better developed, I thought she did a great job exploring some of her other themes, particularly around grief, addiction, and religion. I really liked how the narrative was developed. There’s no clear delineation between the past and the present, with her current day experiences triggering past memories throughout the novel. I could see how this structure might be frustrating for some, but I loved gaining those little insights into Gifty’s past and how those past experiences influenced who she is today and her relationship with her mom. 

But the highlight of the book for me was Gyasi’s look at the role religion played in Gifty’s life, and how despite her best efforts, she was never able to completely shed that upbringing. I had a big religious upbringing myself and while I haven’t been trying to shed that background the same way Gifty was, I really related to her in the ways that it hurt and helped her. Unfortunately religion also brings with it a lot of shame and guilt. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it does create an internalized sense of shame and feelings of anger and frustration when religious institutions are not the good and holy influence that they should be. There are a lot of christians who carry around a lot of misplaced righteousness and it has not made the world a better place. 

But more than anything, I felt Gifty was really just looking for something to belong to. She has more often than not been the only black person in her church, in her classes, in her program, and she has struggled to make friends and connect with people. Her brother was the one person she felt close to and when she lost him and her mother started to fall apart, she had no one that she could turn to. Her faith in God was destroyed by the loss of her brother, and to an extent by the hypocrisy of the Christians in her church and town. But while she tries to leave her faith behind or explain it away, she’s never able to fully dismiss her spiritual experiences. Despite her church not caring for her family the way they should have, her pastor was there for her and her mom when they needed him and she finds herself seeking comfort in the familiarity of church services and her favourite bible verses. It’s hard to describe the feelings Gyasi’s narrative evoked, but I just really connected with Gifty and despite all that is different between me and Gifty, I found her very relatable.

Finally, the writing was lovely. It’s a very introspective plot – it’s not character driven in the way I normally like in literary fiction, but I liked how the author explored her ideas and how I came to understand Gifty and her family a little better throughout the course of the novel. Like I said, the narrative is a bit all over the place, but honestly that’s exactly what my thought process is like too, so it just worked for me.

Definitely recommend this one, just set aside your expectations because this is not like Homegoing. 

The Last Story of Mina Lee

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2020 (read Aug. 2020)

Special thanks to Harper Collins Canada for providing me with an advance copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for an honest review.

I was thrilled to receive a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee because it sounds like everything I love in a book – a multi-generational family drama about an immigrant family trying to fit in in America. It instantly reminded me of Jean Kwok’s books, which I love, and is quoted as being great for fans of Celeste Ng, whom I also love.

It tells the story of korean mother and daughter, Mina and Margot Lee. Mina moved to America in the late 1980’s to escape the trauma of losing her family in Korea and ends up living in LA, becoming pregnant with Margot. 26 years later Margot is living and working in Seattle and comes home to find her mother has passed away. Margot believes there may be something suspicious in Mina’s death and begins to investigate, discovering along the way that Mina had a lot of secrets. Margot struggles to come to terms with what she learns as she mourns the death of a mother she feels like she never knew.

The story takes place across two timelines. One is the story of Mina’s arrival in America and the first year of her life in LA. The second is modern day Margot trying to find out what happened to her mom. It’s a great family drama about the challenges of bridging two cultures and what drives people to seek a challenging undocumented life in America. It’s about how you never really know the history people are carrying with them and the way in which our secrets can haunt both us and the ones we love.

I thought this was a great debut novel, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I’d hoped. I felt the author struggled to keep the story moving at times and that the dual timeline wasn’t as well executed as it could have been. I was enthralled with Mina’s story and found it fascinating to learn about what drove her to America and the challenges she faced once arriving. It sheds a lot of light on how undocumented individuals are taken advantage of and can easily become trapped. How employers can abuse and manipulate their workers under the threat of reporting them to ICE. Unfortunately I didn’t find Margot’s story quite as engaging.

I struggled to understand why Margot was so suspicious of her mother’s death, I understand it was her own way of grieving her mother, but I didn’t really love the decision to try and link the present and the past. Mina’s life in the 1980’s was in most ways totally separate from her present day life, and I didn’t like how the author tried to link these two timelines so closely when they were so far removed from one another. The mystery element just didn’t really work for me and I think I would have preferred a more simple family drama about Mina’s life and Margot mourning the loss of someone she thought she knew but discovered she really didn’t. The right elements were all there, I just would have like to see some greater emotional exploration over the mystery.

But overall, it was a solid debut and I would give it 3.5 stars. Despite finding some weaknesses in the plot, I thought the writing was good and I’ll definitely be interested to see what else Nancy Jooyoun Kim writes in the future. I thought it was actually being released today and timed my review as such, but I see now on Goodreads that it actually released a week early, so happy 1 week since publication!