Rating: 4 / 5
Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee is an introspective, mysterious story of a woman’s attempts to uncover the truth about her missing sister.
Sylvie Lee is the pragmatic, successful, and responsible sister – Amy the dreamer (but never actor), the more fearful, homebody sister. So when Sylvie goes missing, no one is worried about her safety; they know she can take care of herself. As time passes, the family becomes more concerned, and Amy takes a leap of faith to protect her sister – to travel to the Netherlands and figure out what has happened to her. What Amy slowly uncovers is nothing that she or her family would have guessed.
Please take caution while reading Searching for Sylvie Lee if any of the following topics may trigger you:
- Self-harm / suicide
- Death / dying
- Racism / racial slurs
Searching for Sylvie Lee is nothing short of a complex, winding domestic suspense – like, so winding. There are twists and turns all the time; some so out of left field that I might tend to call them ridiculous. You might think that sounds like a negative critique, but I genuinely enjoyed the craziness that was this novel – especially coupled with the depth of themes like race and familial obligations.
Kwok’s writing stood out to me in this novel more than in any other mystery I’ve read. She writes her characters’ inner dialogues beautifully literally. Sylvie and Ma both grew up outside of the United States and English is not their first language – Kwok portrays this through their inner dialogues by using literal English translations of phrases. She also does this with Dutch dialogue, providing a direct translation of things like curse words and common sayings. It’s one of my favorite parts of the novel.
The characters are deeply complicated, which is a huge theme throughout the novel. Amy and Sylvie see themselves so negatively but see each other as perfect and everything the other is not. Deception is rampant throughout the novel, and the characters’ complicated pasts and presents, as well as incorrect first impressions, add to the chaos and wrong turns. This is a subtle mystery, with much more nuance and quiet deception than many other books like it.
Searching for Sylvie Lee is a wonderfully unique, sometimes outlandish, and always thought-provoking novel rooted in family – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Kwok deftly discusses Chinese and Dutch culture and living as immigrants in America while also taking us down the rabbit hole that is Sylvie’s disappearance. I enjoyed this one.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my thoughts on Searching for Sylvie Lee. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or at my Instagram, @bookmarkedbya!