Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: Stranger in Taiwan

Stranger in Taiwan
Hartley Pool
Revenge Ink, 208 pp

Hartley Pool sent me a copy of his new, quasi-autobiographical book discussing his experiences as a language teacher in Taiwan. Below is my review.

The book opens in London where he meets an attractive Taiwanese girl, Anita, while teaching ESL classes. Soon they are involved in a long-distance relationship, and he decides to go out to Taiwan to pursue the relationship. The story then becomes a series of vignettes of his encounter with Taiwan, rich with wit and self-deprecating humor.

Told with a constant flow of jokes, wisecracks, and irony that often rises to real wit, Strangers in Taiwan can be quite entertaining. It will always make you smile, and sometimes it is laugh-out-loud funny. The book does a wonderful job of capturing how outre and disconnected the Taiwan experience is when you first get here, how disorienting and bewildering it can be. Anyone who has been here any length of time will have had the same experiences and will instantly be able to relate to them: the hospital. The Girl. The Family. The Job. Touring with The Girl.

Unfortunately the book never gets past that level. In Pool's hands Taiwan and his girl, Anita, are merely foils for displays of wit. It ends with his marriage to the girl he came for, but despite this apparent movement through two years of his life, the book lacks any definite story or even narrative flow. People and things flow into the book like crowds on a dark street briefly illuminated by a streetlamp before hurrying on their way past, having as little effect on either Pool or the reader. Events and issues are seldom introduced or explained at any length, meaning that the reader ends up as disoriented as Pool. Why did Pool stay for two years? Why did he marry his girlfriend? How does Taiwan cause him to reflect on his own life, his own culture, his own values? What can the reader learn from his experience?

As a set of disconnected tales, this is an excellent work, each chapter worth the time spent. But taken as a whole, it lacks the kind of depth and development that would have made it a truly memorable and illuminating work.
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Jenna Cody said...

Are you sure it's really fair to say that "anyone who's been here any length of time will be familiar with...The Girl? The Family (by whom I assume you mean The Girl's Family). "Touring with The Girl"?

I mean, come on, some of us ARE girls, and so we don't exactly have this experience. I didn't have a Girl (or guy, if we're talking locals), or The Family, or the Tour with the Girl. That's most of your references to things we'll "all be familiar with" tossed right into the trash.

I would say that this does not speak for me at all. I will go out on a limb and also speak for my husband, for whom I'm The Girl, and I'm not Taiwanese!

So, you know, I'd suggest being a little more circumspect about such comments. We're not all young horny dudes. Some of us are women, and some of us came with relationships from back home, with people who are not necessarily Taiwanese. We don't all have the same experiences, even if we have been here for some length of time.

Michael Turton said...

We don't all have the same experiences, even if we have been here for some length of time.

I'll try and be more circumspect.


Felicity @ Japanese Wanderer said...

This sounds like the Taiwanese version of Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde, chronicling his experiences in France. I found the vignettes really funny and sometimes insightful, regardless of the fact that some of his experiences sounded familiar. Just because someone writes about something you already know, it doesn't mean the story can't sound interesting.