‘The Foreigner: A Novel’ by Francie Lin

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Special to The Times

June 17, 2008

The fraught but inextricable bonds of family are explored in Francie Lin’s first novel, “The Foreigner,” whose title comes to take on unexpected meaning.

Emerson Chang is single, on the verge of 40, living in San Francisco with no social life to speak of and paying weekly visits to his elderly mother. He works as a financial analyst, finding ways to cut costs for mismanaged corporations. “My dreams and my reality are more or less the same,” he admits, “and I like the regularity and implied balance.” His days are unexceptional.

The only dramas in his life stem from his controlling mother -- a Taiwanese immigrant who owns a local motel. It was there that she raised Emerson and his younger brother, Peter, known as Little P, who years before moved to his mother’s ancestral land. (Their father died when they were young.) Adept at manipulation, Emerson’s mother “never cried except to extract promises or confessions; when she was truly upset, she was dry as a bone, and dangerously still.” Her sudden death from an advanced-stage cancer she had kept hidden sets Emerson on a fascinating path toward self-discovery.

Heading to Taipei to scatter her ashes, Emerson must also tend to the terms of her estate, which means a reunion with the brother he hasn’t seen for a decade. Little P, the favorite but absent son, has inherited the motel. Meanwhile, Emerson, the dutiful, responsible son, is shocked to learn that he’ll receive some stock holdings and a smaller property his mother owned in Taiwan.

“Guilt and anger suffocated each other in me; I wished her back to life again, resurrected just for a moment, so that I could accuse, deny, shout, and beg for her forgiveness and her love, one last time,” Emerson thinks to himself.

For sentimental reasons, he hopes to persuade Little P to sell him the motel, the only family home they’ve known.

In Taipei, he is greeted by a Little P who is no longer recognizable -- a “very thin, lean, wolfish” thug whose face is a “fleshy patchwork” of bruises, slashes and welts that suggest familiarity with (and perhaps fondness for) a brutal existence. All Emerson knows about his brother’s business is that he works for their uncle’s nightclub, a karaoke den. But when he meets Little P’s associates -- who happen to be their cousins, known as Poison and Big One -- it becomes apparent that they run a decidedly shady operation.

Luckily, Emerson finds two allies as he slips deeper into his brother’s dangerous world: Atticus, an avuncular figure who works with Little P, and Angel, a woman Emerson meets in Taipei with whom he forms an instant and intense bond.

As she spins an action-filled plot, Lin also explores the volatile dynamic between Emerson and Little P. One brother is sensitive; the other is savage. Even as Emerson learns the extent of his brother’s sinister dealings -- including prostitution smuggling -- he is unable to detach from him: “You’re all I have left,” he tells Little P, who is unmoved by Emerson’s efforts at reconciliation.

The more Emerson refuses to give up on Little P, the more self-annihilating his brother becomes. He recognizes how vicious is his rejection of Emerson, but there’s no turning back: “Exile is the punishment,” he explains. “I cut everything inside of me out. There’s nothing left in here. . . . I cut myself off from any kind of grace.”

Genre-wise, “The Foreigner” is best described as a thriller, rife with murders, drugs, secrets and betrayals. But you won’t find any of the cardboard characters, clunky writing or clichéd conventions that too often mar suspense fiction. Lin is equally attentive to description and plot. As Emerson walks down the street one day, he notes that the sky “moved above me with the threat of solemnity and grace. A bird sang two high notes in the black slate landscape.” The executor of his mother’s estate is a “tall, cadaverous man with a voice that rasped like a twig.” It’s that lovely, detailed writing that makes you care about what happens to these characters more than you might have otherwise.

“The Foreigner” is a bit unconventional in its resolution too. There’s nothing terribly shocking about the fates of these characters, yet there’s no happy ending, either. Lin provides enough ambiguity to suggest the story might continue in another novel -- a sequel that would prove most welcome.

Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of several anthologies of poetry, including “First Loves” and “Solitude.”

The Foreigner A NovelFrancie LinPicador: 310 pp., $14 paper