Country of Origin

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Overview

A dazzling debut novel by the prize-winning author of Yellow, set in the unique and exotic nightworld of Tokyo.
In this "poignant story of prejudice, betrayal and the search for identity" (Newsweek International), the trials and tribulations of these three remarkable characters are "at turns trenchantly funny and heartbreakingly sad" (Publishers Weekly). "[An] elegant and haunting debut" (Entertainment Weekly), Country of Origin is a "swirl of action, a whirl of love and sex and...

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Country of Origin: A Novel

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Overview

A dazzling debut novel by the prize-winning author of Yellow, set in the unique and exotic nightworld of Tokyo.
In this "poignant story of prejudice, betrayal and the search for identity" (Newsweek International), the trials and tribulations of these three remarkable characters are "at turns trenchantly funny and heartbreakingly sad" (Publishers Weekly). "[An] elegant and haunting debut" (Entertainment Weekly), Country of Origin is a "swirl of action, a whirl of love and sex and race and politics, local and international" (Chicago Tribune)—a "quiet literary triumph" (Booklist)
Lisa Countryman is a woman of complex origins. Half-Japanese, adopted by African American parents, she returns to Tokyo, ostensibly to research her thesis on Japan's "sad, brutal reign of conformity." When she vanishes, Tom Hurley, who is half-Korean and half-white, is assigned to her case at the American embassy, as is local cop Kenzo Ota, who is 100 percent Japanese but deemed an outsider.

Winner of the 2005 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ploughshares editor Lee uses the racial homogeneity of Japan as a stark backdrop to this elegant first novel, a follow-up to his story collection, Yellow. Set in Tokyo in 1980, the book centers on the disappearance of Lisa Countryman, a half-Japanese, half-black Berkeley graduate student who goes to Japan to research the "sad, brutal reign of conformity" for her dissertation and, perhaps more importantly, embark on an identity quest. Her mixed-race background gives her an exotic beauty, and after a teaching job falls through, it lands her a job as a hostess girl at a Tokyo men's club. Echoes of Countryman's identity crisis ring through the lives of all the characters affected by her disappearance. When she vanishes, it is first brought to the attention of Tom Hurley, a vain and careless junior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy who tells people he's Hawaiian, though he's really half-Korean and half-white. The case is turned over to Kenzo Ota, a glum, divorced police inspector, who spent three hard years of his adolescence in Missouri. Convinced that Countryman's case could be just what he needs to put his career back on track, Ota resolves to find out what happened to her. The story of Countryman's time in Japan and her efforts to learn who she is unfolds parallel to Ota's efforts to learn her fate. Through the interlocking stories of Ota, Countryman and Hurley, Lee discourses on race, identity, the Japanese sex trade, social conventions and law. Sharply observed, at turns trenchantly funny and heartbreakingly sad, this novel could be the breakout book for Lee. Agent, Maria Massie, Witherspoon Associates. (July) Forecast: The novel's insights into the Japanese sex industry make it a grittier counterpoint to Memoirs of a Geisha, and its investigations of race and identity might, for some, recall White Teeth. Five-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A CIA agent gets in over his head when he investigates a young American woman's disappearance in 1980s Tokyo. This literary thriller from Ploughshares editor Lee is getting a big push, and our reviewer loved it (LJ 2/1/04). Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A handful of restless, intertwining lives in 1980 Tokyo. Tom Hurley, Junior Officer in American Citizens Services at the American Embassy in Tokyo, receives a frantic call from a Richmond, Virginia, woman named Susan Countryman. Susan's sister Lisa, a graduate student in anthropology visiting Tokyo, hasn't contacted home in over a month, and Susan fears foul play. There's not much Tom can do, but he conducts a (fruitless) cursory investigation and gets in touch with the local police, who foist the dull assignment off on obsessive/compulsive Assistant Inspector Kenzo Ota. Lee's narrative jumps from Tom to Kenzo to Lisa, who, out of money and teaching opportunities, takes several hostess jobs at a series of gentlemen's clubs, each shabbier than the last. Womanizing Tom, on the rebound from a fling with coworker Sarah, enters slowly into an affair with bored Julia Tinsley, wife of CIA officer Vincent Kitamura. Their conversations about Lisa's case provide a pretext for growing intimacy, and an accident from which they unwisely flee bonds them in silence. Insomniac Kenzo, at first engaging in psychological warfare with his landlady Saotome over the suitability of his apartment, eventually opts instead to kill her with kindness. Deeper layers of longing and hidden agendas gradually come to the fore. Kenzo's wife left him several years ago and emigrated to America. She's recently returned to Japan with a son named Simon. Realizing the boy must be his, Kenzo begins working out a plan to meet him. Lisa may be working in the clubs not because she's down-and-out, but because she's doing research. Tom, breaking with his usual love-and-leave pattern, falls Julia, becoming more obsessed with her themore ambivalence she displays. Thriller conventions draw the reader, like the characters, into a gallery of human enigmas. First-novelist Lee (Yellow, stories, 2001), the longtime editor of Ploughshares, leaves no fingerprints: his cool, precise prose captures his characters without overexplaining them. Agent: Maria Massie
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393327069
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/17/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 315
  • Sales rank: 1,416,404
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Don Lee has received an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Fred R. Brown Literary Award. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, GQ, The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. For nineteen years, he was the principal editor of the literary journal Ploughshares. He is currently the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Temple University.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Entertaining story line

    In 1980 University of Berkley graduate student Lisa Countryman, a half-Japanese, half-black American, conducts her dissertation research in Tokyo on the brutal societal conformity of bar girls. Lisa also has a personal agenda to learn more about who she is as a mixed race person................... Needing work, Lisa finds employment as a hostess girl at a Tokyo men's club. Eventually she vanishes and her disappearance comes to the attention of American Junior Diplomat Tom Hurley, who has no interest in a half-breed¿s disappearance except as a nuisance that takes him away from the embassy pool and cocktails, which in his mind is more important to a purebred Hawaiian that he insists he is. In fact he is embarrassed by his roots of being a hybrid half-Korean, half white. Police Inspector Kenzo Ota, who spent three miserable teen years in Missouri, investigates the missing American, feeling strongly this case could make his career if he can solve it fast................ This is an interesting look at racial relationships told through the three key characters whose convergence centers on the disappearance. The entertaining story line grips the reader from the moment that Lisa¿s vanishing is reported and never slows down as Tom half heartedly and Ota fully are engaged in learning what happened to her. Though minor in terms of the plot, the Tokyo embassy is in bright contrast to the stark Iranian hostage situation that is occurring at the same time. Don Lee uses a Japanese police procedural to provide a strong look at is racial origins................... Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2004

    Intriguing Look at Sex & Racial Homogeneity

    Where in the world is Lisa Countryman? Lisa, a twenty-something American woman of mixed-heritage seems to have disappeared after a trip to Japan. As the plot unfolds in ¿Country of Origin,¿ we learn that Lisa is a Ph.D. candidate looking to write about Japan¿s matriarchal society. Her research (and need for money) leads her down the dark path of the country¿s underground sex world in the early eighties, where men pay wads of cash for female companionship. Is it the reason for her disappearance? That¿s what Kenza Ota would like to know....................... Ota, a bumbling detective, is given the task of finding the whereabouts of Countryman. But his lack of skill either leads him to dead ends or two steps behind. Though Ota suffers from the humiliation of being a terrible detective, he takes the Countryman case very seriously since it could redeem him. Meanwhile, Ota deals with the crisis in his personal life, including a divorce that occurred fourteen years ago that left him single and celibate. When his ex shows up in Japan with her teenage son, he is convinced that he is the boy¿s father. He follows the boy while working up the nerve to speak to him........................... Then there¿s Tom Hurley. Tom, an embassy service officer, gets involved in the case when Lisa¿s sister contacts him from America. When Tom begins an affair with Julia Tinsley, the wife of a CIA agent, Lisa Countryman¿s case becomes the highlight of their conversations. Once he learns this, he digs deeper into the case, not because he truly cares but because he wants to keep Julia interested....................... This book is not only about the mysterious vanishing of Lisa Countryman, it is also about race, gender, sex, and Japanese culture. The underlying theme of the Japanese¿s obsession with racial homogeneity is eye-opening and mind-boggling. The underground sex world is described in titillating detail. Author Don Lee, who also wrote ¿Yellow,¿ is a gifted writer who is best when taking a subject and rolling with it like in this passage:......................... ¿Kenzo had always been rail-thin, as was Yumiko, but Simon was fat. Roly-poly, flesh-bobbing fat. Trundling, waddling fat. Wheezing, heaving, lard-[expletive] fat. American fat. What had they been feeding him over there in Atlanta, Georgia? Kenzo could only imagine. Mounded, gelatinous meals, like chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, white biscuit gravy.¿....................................... Though some of the material may be considered offensive (Africans look like monkeys, Caucasians stink of dairy products, and lighter skin in considered better than a darker hue), it does not take away from the fact that this is an intriguing read. Reading ¿Country of Origin¿ is like riding a time machine to Japan¿s underworld in the late seventies and early eighties. ¿Country of Origin¿ is worth the read.

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