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In 2009, Jean Kwok’s older brother, Kwan, disappeared. A physicist with a passion for flying, one November day he was piloting a twin-engine plane from Texas to his home in Virginia, and was never seen alive again. After about a week of searching, Kwan Kwok’s body was found amid wreckage in the mountains of West Virginia. Jean Kwok has said that her brother’s death broke her family.

"We are all still revolving around the vacuum that his loss created,” she wrote shortly after the accident.

In a new book, “Searching for Sylvie Lee,” Kwok has taken the pain of that experience and turned it into a moving tale that, while billed as a mystery, transcends the genre. Set in the Netherlands, where Kwok — who emigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was 5 — now lives, the novel borrows pieces from her life to tell a story about the devastating effects of family separation and how secrets damage and shape their victims.

(William Morrow)
(William Morrow)

The plot follows Sylvie, who at 6 months old was sent by her parents from Queens to the Netherlands to live with her grandmother and her mother’s cousin, Helena Tan. When Sylvie was 9, her parents brought her back to the United States to live with them and Amy, the 2-year-old sister she had never met. Sylvie never really adjusts.

At 32, Sylvie travels to the Netherlands to be with her dying grandmother. Before flying home, she disappears. Amy heads to Europe to search for Sylvie and doesn’t trust the Tan family’s reactions. Helena claims Sylvie ran off with a fortune in jewelry. Her son Lucas thinks Sylvie went off to spend time on her own. She later learns that Filip, Sylvie’s childhood friend, kept a secret that he recently traveled with her to Venice. There are lots of people who could have hurt Sylvie.

Author Jean Kwok. (Josh Finnell)
Author Jean Kwok. (Josh Finnell)

The soggy “schizophrenic Dutch weather” provides the dark and gloomy backdrop to the drama, as do revelations about racism Sylvie and Amy experienced as children and continue to experience as adults. There is so much in this novel that mirrors modern life as Kwok, the much-admired author of the 2010 novel “Girl in Translation,” pulls us into the lives of people who encounter prejudice and ignorance as they struggle to assimilate. “To live in the world as a white person,” Sylvie says, “is a completely different experience than a person of color. Discrimination is invisible to them because it does not affect them.”

Sylvie recalls an elementary school teacher who didn’t consider it wrong to call her “Miss Ching Chong.” When Amy is called “ching chong” during her stay in the Netherlands, a friend apologizes for the stranger who said it. “We have our problems here in the Netherlands too. There is stupidity everywhere.”

The Lee family also struggles within its own ranks. Sylvie’s first language is Dutch, Amy’s is English and their mother’s (Ma) is Chinese. Communication problems exacerbate the fact that Ma and Sylvie are keeping devastating secrets.

Gorgeous, smart and talented Sylvie views herself as ugly, unlovable and undeserving of happiness. When family secrets are revealed, we feel Sylvie’s unbearable pain. Kwok cracks open Sylvie’s heart, spilling its sorrowful contents for all the world to see. This is a beautifully written story in which the author evokes the hard reality of being an immigrant and a woman in today’s world.

Carol Memmott, a freelance book critic, lives in Northern Virginia.

By Jean Kwok

William Morrow. 314 pp. $26.99

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