I’m struggling to remember having ever read anything quite like this book. Even after hours of thought, I’m still casting about for anything I could use to make an apt comparison. Words like ‘unique’ and ‘incomparable’ get bandied around a lot in reviews, but I’m prepared to argue that for Under the Visible Life they just might be justified.
It intertwines the stories of two women – half-Chinese, half-American Katherine and half-Pakistani, half-American Mahsa – across the span of a lifetime, from the middle of the twentieth century all the way to the present day. It’s a sensory, sensual novel, exquisitely written, and guaranteed a place as one of the most quotable books I’ve ever read.
An only child watches adults with great attention trying to get clues about what life will be like, and whether it will be less solitary, because there is no other child to share what life is right now.
A theme explored constantly throughout the book is the multitude of struggles faced by the poor, the neglected and the forgotten – specifically, the struggles faced by women. The fact that both the protagonists are mixed-race adds another layer of nuance: the horrific ordeal endured by Katherine’s mother for the so-called crime of marrying a Chinese man makes for difficult reading, and Mahsa’s awful, inevitable forced marriage left me feeling cold. It’s a glimpse into another age, an entirely different way of thinking from the values of the modern Western world. The most radical thing a woman can do is live. Instead they both cling to their music, the one thing that unites and defines them, as a way to survive and thrive.
What makes Under The Visible Life work so well as the way in which it’s fundamentally a study in contradictions: whereas Mahsa is passive and thoughtful, Katherine is brash and impulsive, simply taking for herself the opportunity she wants – “I just walked onto the stage and started playing the piano” – uprooting herself from her old life to seek fame and fortune in New York. And yet it’s also a reflection on the common ground people can find between themselves, even across vast cultural divides.
I’m torn which half of the story I liked more. I started off preferring Katherine, but soon switched to Mahsa – then back to Katherine, then Mahsa again, and Katherine, then Mahsa once again. All of this is a long-winded way of saying I loved them both – within minutes I was drawn completely into each story, compulsively eager to know what would happen next. I wished they could have interacted more – their stories seemed to peel away from each other towards the end and head in completely separate directions – but the last fifty pages were a race to the finish.
If I could sum Under the Visible Life up in a sentence – and I’m not sure I can – I would say that it’s a tale of survival and determination in the face of adversity. It reminded me that for all the progress we’ve made in our society, there’s still much further to go. This is one I won’t be hesitating to recommend.
Pick it up. Pick it up NOW.