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Country of Origin Hardcover – July 15, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* It's 1980, a hard-fought election year in which the Iranian hostage crisis plays an increasingly critical role. But that intrigue exists a world away from Foreign Service junior officer Tom Hurley, a cipher hiding a cowardly episode of treachery in his past. He's coasting through a dull-but-cushy appointment to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and targeting a CIA operative's wife for a bit of dangerous fun. She blipped onto Hurley's radar screen by asking him about the seemingly routine case of Lisa Countryman, a U.S. tourist who disappeared after ditching an under-the-table job at a fly-by-night English language school. The ensuing investigation takes Hurley and clueless police detective Kenzo Ota into Tokyo's seediest corners. It also forces both men to confront their many human failings, and possibly even overcome them. Issues of race, class, and national identity drive this clear-eyed story of closure, redemption, and carving out a place in the world. Lee expertly weaves a tiny new pleasure into every page, from fascinating forays into Japanese culture to wry lines in the vein of "People don't have affairs to get out of their marriages. They have them to prolong them." As satisfying as it is unsettling, this quiet literary triumph eschews plot pyrotechnics for fully realized, deeply felt characters who bumble and struggle their way toward grace much like the rest of us. Frank Sennett
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 315 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (July 15, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058123
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058123
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,968,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Don Lee is the author most recently of the novel The Collective. He is also the author of the novel Wrack and Ruin, which was a finalist for the Thurber Prize; the novel Country of Origin, which won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction; and the story collection Yellow, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

He has received an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and his stories have been published in The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, GQ, The North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Manoa, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Charlie Chan Is Dead 2, Screaming Monkeys, Narrative, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the St. Botolph Club Foundation, and residencies from Yaddo and the Lannan Foundation. In 2007, he received the inaugural Fred R. Brown Literary Award for emerging novelists from the University of Pittsburgh's creative writing program.

From 1988 to 2007, he was the principal editor of the literary journal Ploughshares. He is currently a professor in Temple University's M.F.A. program in creative writing in Philadelphia. He is a third-generation Korean American.


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Donal Heffernan on October 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
COUNTRY OF ORIGIIN was a great read: a beautifully written story with considerable color of place and intriguing tension turns. I'm assigning it for my fiction writing class, it's that good. A rare find: one of those packages you get from Amazon.com that offer you a stimulating week--no stop reading once I started.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Fred Zappa on January 5, 2006
Format: Paperback
I thought this was a great read, though not quite worth five stars. A reviewer below describes the writing style as poor, but I disagree--I think Lee writes very well, very efficiently, without getting in the way of a story that kept me interested at all times. Having read his earlier story collection, Yellow, which is full of surprising characters and situations (and just as well written), I was somewhat taken aback here by the familiar "mystery" storyline. The plot felt a little mechanical, but for the most part, the mystery did keep me going, and the bringing-together of many disparate characters near the end was smooth and convincing.

I also thought most of the characters were fascinating people. The bumbling Japanese detective was especially compelling, a combination of TV's Columbo and Monk whose essential honesty and humanity wins out in the end. The identity issues, and the success some characters have at escaping their former identities and growing into more appropriate or comfortable ones, were also convincing, even inspiring. A reviewer below finds the setting confusing--why 1980 instead of now? Well for one thing, the Iranian hostage crisis was dragging on and on at that time. The idea of a "hostage" symbolizes the identity struggles of many of the characters.

The many details about Tokyo are also fascinating, though at times the piling up of "quirky Japan" examples ("weird" sex bars and love hotels, fetishistic Japanese men, bizzare TV shows, etc.) got to be a bit much. Those able to direct the Western gaze toward Japan should give it credit for more than its "weirdness," which people in the West already tend to know about. Fortunately, the multidimensional Japanese characters offered by Lee balance out those times where he pauses for yet another cultural oddity.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on July 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This novel works on all levels-as a mystery, as a literary novel, and as a sharp examination of late-20th-century Japan. Don Lee has written a terrific, engrossing story which will be enjoyed by anyone who loves a good book.
In 1980, graduate student Lisa Countryman goes to Japan to work on her doctoral thesis. She's half Japanese, half-black, a Berkeley grad who hopes to learn more about her own background through her research. This path turns risky, and at the opening of the novel, Lisa has already disappeared.
The US Embassy official assigned to Lisa's case is on shaky ground himself. Tom Hurley is on his own risky path, hiding his own mixed heritage as he pursues an affair with the wife of a CIA official. A man of such compromised morals wants nothing to do with a disappearance of another bi-racial American, especially one who may have been involved in the Japanese sex underground. Lisa's case falls to Kenzo Ota, a Tokyo detective with so many neuroses that he commands no respect. He gets Lisa's case because in the eyes of his co-workers, the disappearance of such a person is of no consequence whatsoever.
Don Lee weaves Lisa's story through Ota's search for her with fluidity and skill. His pointed look at Japanese society in 1980 is intelligent and interesting, with the additional intriguing reflection on the US reaction to bi-racial Americans. "Country of Origin" is completely satisfying and I look forward to Don Lee's next novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 31, 2006
Format: Paperback
Set in 1980 Tokyo, this debut novel preoccupies itself with the theme of identity born of mixed heritage. At the the plot level, it's a fairly effective mystery about an American woman who goes missing and the sad sack Japanese detective who's assigned her case. The woman is Lisa Countryman, who is ostensibly in Tokyo to research the sex economy for her PhD thesis. She was born in Japan, but was adopted as a baby by a black U.S. military family, and the real impetus for her trip is to locate her birth mother. When her sister in the U.S. eventually calls the embassy for help in locating her, the case is assigned to Tom Hurley. He's a somewhat dissolute 30something consular officer who's mostly interested in bedding the wife of a CIA officer, but is also conflicted about his own mixed heritage. Hurley passes the case on to Kenzo Ota, a lonely, ineffectual, middle-aged police detective invisible to his peers and society in general.

For Ota, the case is an opportunity to get away from his window office (a position of shame in the Japanese workplace at the time) and win some respect from his colleagues. Ota's investigation alternates with flashbacks to Lisa's arrival in Japan, as she drifts from research into bar hostessing, and hires a detective of her own to track down her mother. Meanwhile, a third subplot revolves around Hurley's affair with the CIA wife, Julia, who has somehow heard about the missing Lisa and takes a mysterious interest in the case. There's also a running subplot about Ota's personal life, which includes an encounter with his ex-wife and her son (who may be his), and a budding romance. This is a lot of plot to juggle, and Lee mostly pulls it off, although the book probably could have been much improved by excising or greatly diminishing the Hurley material.
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