my review of Karen Ma’s debut novel Excessive Luggage

After going through a series of unsatisfying China related novels, it was a refreshing delight to read Karen Ma’s debut novel Excessive Luggage about two sisters growing up in two different worlds, one in Communist China’s poor and strictly controlled society and the other in free and affluent Hong Kong and Japan. After China opens its door in the 90’s, the older girl Pei, 38 by then, determinedly makes her way to Tokyo. As the two sisters Pei and Vivian eye each other warily, the tension is set and drives us to read on.

I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel is narrated from alternate point of view which gives the readers two different perspectives. As someone who grew up in China and witnessed the ‘chu guo re’ – the rush of going abroad and someone who also lived and worked abroad, I can relate to both sisters and their different aspirations: the poor one wants money fixatedly and the well-educated one wants love and self-fulfillment.

It is a book written with energy, heart and insight. No doubt that the author’s own experience – a Chinese growing up in Hong Kong and Japan – lends the authenticity to the writing. She knows the subtle differences between oolong and jasmine tea and their indications and the difference in gift-giving in Chinese and Japanese culture.

Pei, who has a little more prominent role in the book, is a bitter and angry woman who is left behind by her family in the early 60’s thanks to an immigrant rule. As she desperately tries to make something of herself in Japan, chopping vegetables in a restaurant, working as a hostess at a seedy night club and studying fashion design in a hope of setting up a business, we readers feel her pain and struggle. This is one of the rare books that gives the harsh Chinese money grabbers a human face.

I finished the book last night at 3 am. I just had to keep going.

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