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Book Review: Real Americans by Rachel Khong

Book Review: Real Americans by Rachel Khong

Rachel Khong’s debut novel, Goodbye Vitamin, was the story of a young woman who moves back home to help her dad, who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Though the subject matter is bleak, the book’s intimate scope, unusual structure and honest humour won Khong numerous well-deserved plaudits and awards.

Her follow up, Real Americans, is a decidedly grander affair.

We meet Lily Chen in New York City in 1999, working as an unpaid intern for an enormous media company. Struggling to make rent, she’s floundering in the big city until she meets and falls in love with Matthew Maier, the scion of a wealthy dynasty. Although their feelings for each other are deep and real, the enormous gap in their backgrounds and financial situations casts a pall over their relationship from the beginning.

In 2021, we meet Nick Chen – the son of Lily and Matthew. Except somewhere in those intervening years the two split mysteriously and acrimoniously, and so Nick has no idea who his father is. A surreptitious DNA test leads Nick to Matthew, but their eventual meeting is riven with decades’ worth of resentment and secrets.

And then for the final section, set in 2030 and the mid twentieth century, we hear the story of May, Lily’s mother. Detailing her arduous emigration from China to America during the Cultural Revolution, this section fills in the blanks to help us fully understand this complicated family.

Considering the decade-spanning, multi-levelled complexity and serious thematic elements at play, perhaps Khong’s greatest achievement is making Real Americans so easy to read. Whilst her follow-up novel isn’t quite as intimate as her debut, she still grounds her big themes in the everyday lives of everyday people, sitting with three generations of the Chen family as they contend with what it means to be Chinese-American in largely white environments. In the book’s most vivid section, May’s recounting of her traumatic, dramatic escape from Mao’s China proves positively cinematic, and yet the coolness of Khong’s prose makes those passages seem effortless. There’s some pretty heavy-duty discussions around genetic engineering here too, and yet she never loses us in the scientific weeds.

Still, that the narrative holds so much back before we arrive at the mystery uniting May, Lily and Nick does add an unfortunate distancing element to Real Americans; for large swathes of the novel it feels as though we are being purposefully held at arm’s length, which does sometimes make it a difficult book to connect with. That each of these three sections could constitute a standalone work by themselves leads it to feel both rich, and yet somewhat unsatisfying. When you factor in the relative humourlessness too, it does make Khong’s second novel considerably less warm, and a little less absorbing than her first.

Yet the fact remains that Rachel Khong is a very talented writer, and the elegance, inventiveness and control with which she handles her three timelines and grand themes here is certainly to be applauded.


Real Americans is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on 30 April 2024

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