This engrossing novel of expat life in Taipei in the late 1950s is a story which stays with you. That’s due, in part, to the interesting, believable characters, but also because the ending leaves a few threads untied.
The minor mystery of the “Narcissus” in the title is easily enough guessed at; though the word “narcissus” appears nowhere in the text, I assume it’s doing double duty as a reference to the beauty of the flower and also the meaning of self-obsessed vanity as per the Greek myth. The central character of the novel, Lily, is both attractive and vain, at least in the eyes of daughter Lauren, who is our narrator.
Lily, husband Sid Norell, and their teenage children Lauren and Jordy move from Washington D.C. to Taipei in 1957. It’s Sid’s first overseas posting as a Foreign Service officer of the State Department. They’re a Jewish American family, which I mention because I found the cover image confusing – to me the woman looks Eurasian.
Lily’s story and that of the family is told by a now elderly Lauren, who receives a scrapbook of old letters written by her mother during their first years in Taipei.
But Lily’s letters are disconcerting me. My memories of Taiwan had flattened and collapsed onto each other, a pile of snapshots, static images. It’d been a long time since I really thought about Taiwan, except in the most fragmented way, in unconnected glimpses. Rice-paddies spilling down the mountain side, cascades of blindingly supersaturated green. The corpse of a dog in the street, alive with flies. The guy who set up his table in our lane and fashioned elaborate figurines from tinted dough – opera characters in full makeup and costume, soldiers, tigers and dragons – to sell to children for pennies. A man with a horrifying goiter like an eggplant drooping from his neck. These images are beautiful and awful, provoking sensations within me. The revolting stench of “stinky tofu” from the street vendor’s wok. The bumpy pedicab ride on the unpaved lanes while heading to my friend Rosemary’s house. The shriek and twang of the outdoor opera.
These letters prompt Lauren to do more than recall old sights, smells, and sounds. She reflects more deeply on the family’s time in Taiwan, where so many things were set in motion. Old stones are turned over. Was the debonair Rocky, supposedly a U.S. diplomat, really a spy? More importantly, were Lily and this “gorgeous man” lovers? Are the mentions of him as “a confirmed bachelor” indications he was gay? Was Lauren’s dad working for the CIA, almost certainly, but doing what? Why was brother Jordy such a mess? Why did the family drift apart?
The novel draws on the author’s own experience. Jonathan Lerner, born in 1948, lived in Taipei from 1957 to 1959, where his father worked for the Foreign Service. It must have been quite an adventure for the boy. And a shock after suburban DC. To say Taipei was a different city back then would be a huge understatement; even a decade later people would remark how much it had developed. A decade later Lerner had changed too. In 1970 he was drawn to visit a beleaguered subtropical island but of a difficult political stripe – Cuba. He was there as a fellow comrade, a revolutionary, in fact, a founding member the year before of the radical leftist Weather Underground.
A surprising backstory but I’m glad to say that it doesn’t show in the novel. There are no in-your-face political messages. The American entanglement in Vietnam looms over the second half of the story – the father is increasingly sent there on assignment and then serves two tour in Saigon (1961–1965), and both Jordy and Lauren as young adults will be pulled into the war’s orbit – but this is done subtly and the details given as dots which we need to join.
Let’s go back to the arrival of the Norells in Taipei. In those days, you flew in by way of Japan, typically Tokyo and then Okinawa. The family, disembarking from the Civil Air Transport DC-6, were left “dazzled, nearly blinded, by the sun after the all-night flight, and gasping at the hot inrush of air with its whiffs of aviation fuel and tropical rot.”
The air was full of Cold War tension too. The Soviets would put Sputnik into space a few days after their arrival, and the following year would see the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. Taipei was a strange city – poor and crowded with refugees, and yet resplendent with militaristic pomp and theatrical aspirations of greatness as the capital of Free China.
A few weeks after our arrival, there was a parade on the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China. October 10, or Double Ten Day. We watched it from the roof of Sid’s building downtown and were right opposite the stands in which we’re seated the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. He looked rather forbidding – and people say she is made of cast iron, but they both looked poised and gracious.
This passage reminded me of writer Scott Anderson’s account of growing up as a young boy in Taiwan in the mid-1960s, where his dad was an agricultural advisor for the American government. In the preface of The Quiet Americans, Anderson describes how much he enjoyed October 10. His father’s office overlooked the vast square in front of the Presidential Palace:
From his office window, I would watch transfixed as the square below gradually filled with soldiers wearing a riotous array of different colored uniforms and standing at a rigid attention. The highlight was when Chiang Kai-shek emerged onto a balcony of the palace to give a speech. It always ended with the same exhortation: “Back to the Mainland!” At this, artillery would thunder, a hundred thousand soldiers cheered as one, in great billows of propaganda balloons and homing pigeons carrying anti-communist messages rose into the sky, theoretically on their way to the enemy, Red China.
Striking images and memories. And Lily Narcissus is very much a book about memories, of piecing together past personal and family histories, and the limitations of doing so.
Life as a trailing spouse can be a bore, with servants to do the housework (Lily has two) and restricted social expat circles, but Lily thrives, soon becoming involved in charity work and also displaying a talent for socializing. She enjoys the praise that comes with that, something the daughter narrator writes of with bitterness:
She somehow knew how to seat the right people together to stimulate conversation, how to make introductions that put them at ease, how to generate that sparkle that renders a party memorable. Sid did not contribute much to this, but at least he got out of the way and it allowed her to… shine. I was going to say flirt.”
In another great passage:
She and all the other female members of the international diplomatic community were once invited to an afternoon reception in the august presence of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that her contact with the great lady was limited to a few seconds, nothing more than shaking hands in a receiving line. Lily, when retelling the story afterwards, allowed that they had shared an intimate conversation during which the Generalissimo’s wife expressly thanked her for all her work in support of that orphanage. Lily beamed while telling it. And during every retelling.
Some of the resentment might be justified. Lauren says while her mother was “beginning to bask in her emerging persona as hostess and doer of good deeds,” she and husband Sid were organizing a change of schools for the two children, from Taipei to Hong Kong. Our narrator’s suspicions are that Lily sent her and Jordy to boarding school in Hong Kong in part for her own benefit; for trips to the city and opportunities to meet up with Rocky in Macau. Perhaps, but Jordy was in trouble at school. Nobody understands him truly, not his parents, or sister. Boarding school and a change of environment could help. Is Jordy, a budding juvenile delinquent, the author? Elements certainly but not unknowingly on the author’s part; Lerner has already got his time of revolutionary madness out of his system, with a novel Alex Underground and a memoir Swords in the Hands of Children, both dealing with his experiences as a young radical (a young gay radical for some added complication).
Lily Narcissus is a novel with mysteries hanging over the mother, Jordy, and Rocky. For me, however, the father – a reserved, emotionally distant husband and father who stays largely in the background – is much more interesting than he seems. Yes, the exotic expat life is exciting and comes with privileges, but it also comes with personal costs. The kind of men drawn to and chosen for covert intelligence, or even diplomacy, are ideally self-contained and tight-lipped, virtues which, when intensified by the work, can become poisonous – for the men themselves and for their families.
Recall Scott Anderson enjoying Double Ten Day. It was “terrific stuff” for a boy, yet, as he would later learn, his father didn’t enjoy these displays. At the time, the father kept his feelings to himself – about this and the Cold War project in general: the American backing of regimes using anti-communism as a means to suppress political dissent, and the disastrous involvement in Vietnam. “When finally we moved back to the United States in 1969, my father’s disillusionment was complete. He dragged me and my siblings along to the antiwar demonstrations on the Washington Mall, and vowed that if Vietnam was still going on when my brother and I reached draft age he would take us to Canada.”
This is not an unusual case. Take, for instance, Sara Mansfield Taber’s Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter, published in 2012. The memoir recounts her childhood as the daughter of a covert CIA operative (his cover was as a State Department Foreign Service officer) in various locations around the world, most memorably a two-year stay in Taipei (starting in 1961 when she was seven years old). The work the father did and the frequent uprooting took a toll on the family and her father. Relocations are hard on kids, who struggle for the normalcy and constancy of a grounded regular life. In the memoir, the father became increasingly disillusioned with his country’s Cold War fight in Asia.
Sara’s father and others like him were fighting the good fight against communism in Asia. Sure, it was not black and white, good versus evil like a comic book, but there was still a clear enough difference. Consider the Taipei time period for Lily Narcissus – it is the same years as the Maoist holocaust of the PRC’s Great Leap Forward. Anything compared to that looks good, of course, but on a personal level, an intelligence officer might have good reason for emotional turmoil and disillusionment; there were the police state activities around him violating the American ideals of freedom and democracy. And then they were some of the covert operations themselves – training and sending Nationalist agents on virtual suicide missions into enemy territory in China and Vietnam. The great majority of these agents were killed or captured.
If we’re looking at children of State Department employees in Taipei who became writers, then I should perhaps include a couple of the men themselves who penned books. There was James (Jim) Flood, a long-time Foreign Service officer who was based in Taiwan around the time of the 1958 Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, when author Lerner and the fictional Norells were here. He wrote a pro-Taiwan-independence thriller, The Jing Affair (1965) under the pen name of D.J. Spencer. Another interesting person in Taipei around this time, 1959–1962 to be exact, was Robert W. Smith, working as an intelligence officer for the CIA. While here he studied Chinese martial arts under celebrated masters, who he describes in Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods (1974).
But back to the book I’m reviewing. I would have preferred a little more closure, a little more likeability in the characters, but Lily Narcissus is an exceptional read, a beautifully written and well-crafted novel of personal dramas played out in a shadowy Cold War setting. This is literary fiction as it should be: intelligent, thought-provoking, and engrossing.
Lily Narcissus is published by Unsolicited Press.