Michelle de Krester gives the reader a (granted, limited) choice in this duology packaged as a single book – you can read these stories, each essentially a novel in itself, in whichever order you prefer. One is called “Lili”, and set in the early 1980s. The other is called “Lyle” and set in the near future. The stories are, of course, siblings but there’s not a specific through-line. They are connected without really connecting. Both stories are about Australians who had emigrated from nearby Asian counties (never specified), and both feature main characters who are trying to resolve what it means to be different or foreign amongst white people. Both grapple with a tense global situations even as they deal with specific localities and individual lives. In each, as you can imagine, the scary monsters are decidedly human.
I went with “Lyle” first, for no real reason except that I generally enjoy flashbacks so I thought I might want to read the future before investigating the past. Lyle is a married father of two children, caring for his aging mother in highly xenophobic future Australia. Lyle and his wife, Chanel, are very careful never to mention their country of origin – Chanel in particular is a social climber whose primary goal in life seems to be to be rich and considered white. Their son, Sydney, rejects their use of technology and the surveillance state it supports. Lyle’s mother, Ivy, is growing increasingly less capable of managing her daily life, particularly in a society that does not appreciate her allusions to her home culture – Ivy will never pass as white, and she’s always just a little needy. Ultimately, Lyle needs to make decisions about how to manage his family life in the society in which he finds himself. Am I selling that enough? I don’t really want to say exactly what choices he faces, but I found it to be really intriguing. de Krester’s style is both a little dry and sentimental and I loved it.
My second (but maybe your first) story was “Lili” – you must literally invert the book to read the second novel. Lili is a young woman, also Asian with family in Australia, who lives and teaches in a small city in France. She lives in a small walk-up nearly-attic apartment in a cold, stone building with intimidating neighbors and a slightly shady landlord. Most of her friends there are British or German. She is closest with Minna and Nick – Minna gives strong manic-pixie-dream-girl vibes. She loves bright neon clothing (it’s the 80s), she’s a dramatic artist, and she’s been in a long term relationship with Nick that predates her friendship with Lili. The three of them become close, although at times that triangle of relationships becomes entangled. There’s a slight threat of menace – young women, especially single young women, especially non-white, single, young women, living alone in a foreign city, are often hyper aware of the danger of something as simple as a trip to the bathroom. There is a slight menace, and an undercurrent of sexuality to Lili’s life that is utterly compelling.
Together, these parts are a unique way to understand the experience of being an immigrant in a world that varies from indifferent to outright hostile. For me, these books were a hit – I loved the writing, the tone hit that sweet spot between literary and accessible for me as a reader. I don’t know that the impact of the stories together hit strongly for me – I was hoping for maybe a few more echoes across the stories – but that may be impacted by the order in which I read them (from a quick scan of Goodreads, it seems that I’m in the minority in beginning with “Lyle”). However, this was a reading experience I enjoyed quite a bit.