cover image My Year Abroad

My Year Abroad

Chang-Rae Lee. Riverhead, $28 (496p) ISBN 978-1-59463-457-4

Lee’s action-packed picaresque (after On Such a Full Sea) chronicles how an ordinary New Jersey college student ended up consorting with international criminals. As the novel opens, Tiller Bardmon is living with 30-something Val and her eight-year-old son, whom he met in the Hong Kong airport after a series of adventures in Macau and Shenzhen. Val and son are both in witness protection after Val cooperated with the U.S. government to bring down her gangster husband. The story of Tiller and Val runs parallel to Tiller’s recollections of the preceding year, when a day of caddying for a colorful foursome earns him an invitation from entrepreneur Pong Lou to join him on a business jaunt to Asia. The trip is not all work, though, as Tiller discovers he can surf, sing, assume difficult yoga positions, and make mad passionate love—but the great adventure turns into a nightmare when Pong abandons Tiller outside Shenzhen. In energetic prose, Lee nests stories within stories, such as the moving tales of a family torn apart by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and an immigrant family that reinvents itself for survival in America. The frenetic roller-coaster ride is impressively structured as the naive and sometimes reckless Tiller learns about trust and betrayal from his dealings with Pong, and gains a more mature understanding of his identity, culture, and values as his bond with Val develops. This literary whirlwind has Lee running on all cylinders. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM Partners. (Feb.)