Paper Wife (2018): 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.

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