Book Review: The Expatriates, by Martin Edmond

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_expatriates.jpgReading The Expatriates reminded me of my high school years and how I loved history because I had a teacher who made the subject come alive. Martin Edmond has that same talent and I found myself getting caught up in the stories he tells of four New Zealanders who achieved fame in Europe.

Some of the material Edmond based his book on came from the late James McNeish.

Although this book is closer to a textbook than anything else, Edmond writes well, apart from an annoying habit of referring alternately to people by their first and last names, which can be confusing.

The four profiled are Harold Williams, journalist and linguist; Ronald Syme, spy, libertarian, and historian of ancient Rome; John Platts-Mills, radical lawyer (he once defended notorious gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray) and political activist; and Joseph Burney Trapp, librarian, scholar and protector of culture.

The most interesting to me – and possibly Edmond too, as he devotes the largest section of the book to him – was Harold Williams.

The son of a Methodist preacher, Williams became fascinated by foreign languages and mastered a large number. After moving overseas he worked as a correspondent for various publications and reported on conflicts and politics, moving in exalted circles due to his incredible command of languages.

Williams lived and worked in Russia during the turbulent years of Lenin, Trotsky and Rasputin. He married a Russian woman, Ariadna Tyrkova, and devoted much of his life to researching and recording Russia’s history.

Each man has a fascinating life story, and in the case of Platts-Mills, an equally fascinating family. His mother was one of the few female registered doctors in New Zealand in the early 1900s. I’m hoping Edmond may turn his attention to writing a similar book about New Zealand women who achieved fame overseas last century.

This book is a great tribute to four men who went on to make a success of things overseas, and a great reminder that New Zealand has always produced brilliant and revolutionary people.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

The Expatriates
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781988533179

 

Book Review: The Expatriates, written by Janice Y.K Lee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_expatriatesThe Expatriates is a contemporary work, set in the the privileged bubble of the Hong Kong expat community. Initially the three main characters, Mercy, Margaret and Hilary seem rather self-involved – wrapped up in the often trivial details of the lives of Americans living in Hong Kong. I admit to taking a deep sigh at that point, thinking of how unlikely it was that I would enjoy reading about women living in a different country but not wanting to really be a part of that country – rather staying in their “particularly homogeneous enclave of expatdom” – living in the part of town that had the most Americans and centering your life around adherence to your nation’s own holidays and customs – finding “yourself somehow more American than ever.” It becomes quickly apparent that each woman though, is more motivated by central traumas and griefs than by their expat status, and the story continues with strong themes of family, loss and identity.

All three main characters deal with grief while being away from their home country. Mercy, a recent graduate is a rather at-drift graduate who has never felt as though she has belonged to any particular group or community. Being a Korean-American living in Hong Kong but without regular work, her story reflects the struggles of those without a strong sense of identity. She feels as though she doesn’t really belong anywhere – and this is exacerbated by not being as wealthy as her friends. Hillary seems a peculiar woman – ‘test’driving’ an orphan whom she is considering adopting. She is offended when this is pointed out as being rather inappropriate. But it does make sense that her character would be in this situation. Finally, Margaret, a mother of three who is drowning in grief, while trying desperately hard to keep things normal for her children.

Lee weaves these stories together, moving the women around each other’s lives. The setting of the Hong Kong-based expatriate community provides an interesting backdrop, and allows the circumstances of the stories to play out. But, tellingly, their problems are in some ways universal and could happen anywhere. The location here helps mostly to reinforce how isolated they each feel.

I really enjoyed this book. There is a continuing consciousness of the artificial separateness of expat and local. Towards the end I became very concerned about the characters and felt that the story sat with me for some time. A worthwhile read.

Review by Emma Wong-Ming

The Expatriates
written by Janice Y.K Lee
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408706862