All That’s Left Unsaid
By Tracey Lien
William Morrow, September 2022
304 pages, $27.99
Tracey Lien’s debut novel is the best book I’ve read this year. It’s a compelling exploration of the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian who grew up in the refugee enclave of Cabramatta on the outskirts of southwestern Sydney.
Set in the 1990s when Cabramatta was the epicenter of a heroin epidemic, All That’s Left Unsaid follows recent college graduate Ky as she returns home from Melbourne after the murder of her younger brother Denny in what seem like the most inexplicable circumstances. He was a straight-A student attending a post-Prom dinner with friends at the popular Lucky 8 restaurant in the heart of Cabramatta. There were several witnesses, but all of them claim not to have seen anything. When the understaffed and cynical local police fail to mount a serious investigation, Ky, a novice journalist, decides she’ll have to do it herself. Maybe people in the Vietnamese community will talk to her; after all, she’s one of them, not a white police officer, and she’s the older sister of the victim. Who could be more sympathetic?
Ky’s return home is the catalyst for an examination of the way growing up in Cabramatta influenced her and the price her parents paid as refugees trying to adapt to Australian culture. All That’s Left Unsaid is also the story of Ky’s close friendship with Minnie, who is her opposite in nearly every way. (Their relationship reminded me of Elena and Lila in My Brilliant Friend.)
I was riveted by Ky’s attempts to discover who murdered Denny and why – and why no one will talk. Was it gang-related? How could that be? Who would want to kill timid Denny? In a busy restaurant! Even his best friends are evasive. None of it makes sense.
I’ve always been interested in the challenges of the immigrant experience, particularly the tensions between the immigrant parents and their first-generation children, who are pulled back into their parents’ culture while trying to move forward into their future as Americans, Australians, et al. Ky’s “old country” parents impose demanding expectations for behavior and academic performance; Ky and Denny must be Vietnamese culturally while striving to succeed by white Australia’s standards.
Watching the lives of Ky and Minnie unfold on different paths, in part because of their parents’ contrasting experiences and responses to life in Australia, was sobering. One senses that things will not turn out well without being able to predict just what will happen.
The mystery of Denny’s murder will keep you turning the pages, but the closely observed and sympathetic portrayals of the key characters are what will leave a lasting impression on readers.
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