Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 25, 2018

Under the Visible Life (2016), by Kim Echlin

Under the Visible Life was published in 2016, the same year that identity politics went mainstream in Australia.  Authors on opposite sides of the cultural appropriation argument got airspace in the mainstream media and there was much sturm und drang.  But if the same thing was happening in Toronto where Canadian author Kim Echlin lives, then this book was a challenge to the debate.  Who gets to write the stories of people with mixed heritage?  The two central characters in Under the Visible Life are Afghan-American; and Chinese-Canadian.  The Afghan-American girl marries a Pakistani; and the Chinese-Canadian marries an African-American.   I see at the back of the book that there are thanks to consultants on these cultures and perhaps this is the respectful way an author can write such a story. I leave it to others to judge:  I am firmly on the fence with this issue…

Under the Visible Life is the story of two women who negotiate the US jazz scene when everything was against the participation of women.  Both are talented, but have to make hard choices in an era when women are expected to stay home in the kitchen, and sometimes they choose unwisely.  One chooses an unsatisfactory  marriage because it offers life in a less repressive country but finds that the repression travels with her; the other chooses a relationship with a gorgeous musician who turns out to be an unreliable man. Both find that having children compromises the choices they can make and the independence they need.

So it’s a well-worn theme but what makes it different is the liveliness of the jazz music scene, and the author’s dissection of the enduring power of cultural traditions even when they are transplanted to new settings.  It’s not a great book, but it held my attention to the end, and I’m looking forward to reading The Disappeared which is on my TBR because it was nominated for the 2009 Giller Award and was recommended by Kim from Reading Matters and the late, great Kevin from Canada.

Author: Kim Echlin
Title: Under the Visible Life
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2016, 348 pages
ISBN: 9781781256381
Source: Kingston Library



  1. Lisa, I found your blog by accident when I was looking for a unit of work on Boy Overboard/The arrival etc. It is very interesting to read your reviews and ideas on books. I look forward to reading some of these books in my holidays. Thanks


  2. You know my position! I think people should stick to writing their own stories. As to ‘everything against’ what about Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald?


    • Tsk,tsk, Bill, you’ve fallen into a man-trap. You can’t point to exceptional women who made it in a man’s world and say, if they did it, so can anyone. There are structural difficulties and prejudices that an exceptional woman can overcome, but that doesn’t mean it’s ok. If men without the talent and determination of Holliday and Fitzgerald can ‘make it’ because those circumstances favour them, then clearly it’s unfair and worse than that it’s also enabling the talent of women (in any field) to be wasted.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful review, Lisa! I loved Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it. Happy reading!


    • Thanks, Vishy, and happy reading to you too.


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