Paper Wife: Laila Ibrahim

★★★

This gentle novel throws light on an aspect of history that I knew nothing about. Set largely in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it focuses on the surreptitious custom of the ‘paper wife’, and on one particularly determined and compassionate woman. In March 1923, in a small village in China’s Guangdong Province, young Mei Ling is obliged to take her elder sister’s place in a matchmaking deal. New American immigration laws mean that Chinese workers in the USA can no longer move freely back and forth to their families in the motherland. A businessman from San Francisco has come home, hoping to take his wife and son back with him, only to find that his wife has recently died. Now he needs a replacement, and Mei Ling’s family are poor enough and desperate enough to send their daughter to the other side of the world, with a stranger, in the hope of securing a good life for her. The catch is that Mei Ling must pretend to be the dead wife of her new husband, in order to get through the examination given by US border officials. A tale of resilience, hope and well-meaning deceit, this book looks at the challenges of building a new life in the New World – and stepping into another woman’s shoes.

Mei Ling is actually lying twice over, by necessity. She is not Wong Lew She, the dead wife of her husband Kai Li. But nor is she Yu Ling, her elder sister, the woman Kai Li has been expecting and whose horoscope (a Rabbit) was carefully selected to blend with his. But Yu Ling has fallen sick with a severe fever and Mei Ling’s family can’t let this opportunity pass: their other daughter must step into the breach. The problem is that Mei Ling is not a Rabbit: she’s a Dragon, full of force and passion, and she wonders how she can hide her spirit from her husband. Yet she will need all the inner strength she can muster for the long voyage in steerage from Hong Kong to San Francisco – separated from her husband and solely responsible for her new stepson, meek little Bo. On arrival, they are sent to Angel Island, the internment camp for new arrivals, where they are checked and interrogated to make sure they are who they claim to be. This is where it could all go wrong. And Mei Ling is no longer responsible just for herself. She has Bo to think of, and bright little Siew, an orphaned child who has attached herself to their family. Moreover, Mei Ling soon realises that she’s pregnant.

What if she fails and is sent back to China in disgrace? How can she convince the officials that she’s a woman she has never met, and that she knows a house and a village she’s never seen? And even if she manages to pass the exam, what will her new life be like? Can she trust her husband – a man she has barely seen since meeting him? Will he be kind? Nothing is quite as Mei Ling expects, of course, and it turns out that she isn’t the only one who has been lying. But she is young and strong and, at heart, optimistic. She sets out to make the best of the hand fate has dealt her: doing her best to be a good mother for her stepson; using her embroidery skills to boost the family finances; cautiously learning about her husband; and wondering what happened to courageous little Siew after they parted on Angel Island. Life is not easy here, in the hardscrabble world of San Francisco, but Mei Ling will learn that it can still be cherished. She gradually creates a new network of family, caring friends and community to replace the one she left behind – and helps to change a few lives in turn.

This is a wholesome, heartwarming story, with nothing to scare the horses. Indeed, at times it all seems to flow a little too easily. Mei Ling faces surprises and mild setbacks, but I never really felt she or her family were in peril, or doubted that they would overcome the challenges they faced. These challenges were resolved surprisingly easily, especially the major crisis in the book (I won’t say more, to avoid spoilers), which is deftly disposed of – albeit in a way that would surely only have created further problems. The characterisation occasionally also feels a little flat: Siew is a wonderful little creation, for example, but Kai Li never develops much depth. Coupled with a slightly stilted and detached prose style, this means that the story itself never really came to life for me, although the period and setting were certainly fascinating. The whole concept of the ‘paper wife’ (or son, father, niece, etc.) was also intriguing, and you can easily understand why so many Chinese people took the opportunity to escape political or economic troubles at home in the hope of making a fresh start in the USA.

As an aside, I think I got my wires crossed when I started reading this. I’d conflated it in my mind with Yangsze Choo’s novel The Ghost Bride – about a young Chinese woman in Malaysia, who’s married off to the dead son of a wealthy family in order to offer the ghost comfort in its afterlife – so it took me a while to adjust my expectations! I should probably read that as well at some point (is it any good?). I also have two other novels by Laila Ibrahim: Mustard Seed and Yellow Crocus, so we’ll see whether I find her style slightly more engaging in those two stories. Also, can anyone recommend novels about the Chinese diaspora in America that might be a good follow up to Paper Wife?

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review

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