The trope of strangers being more observant about a country than its dulled locals is an old one, but the protagonists of two new debut novels are so hampered by their own foibles that they can't see the forest for the trees, be they olive or acacia. That makes them a burden to their local contacts, but their lack of preparedness for the challenges they meet makes them comforting companions into the narrow alleys of Taipei and Cairo.
In Francie Lin's The Foreigner, Emerson Chang, a meek financial analyst who has dinner with his Taiwanese mother every Friday, is astounded by her sudden death, but aggrieved that she left the family business, a dumpy San Francisco SRO, to his absentee little brother. Wanting to give Mom a proper burial, Emerson flies to Taipei to open the family plot and find his errant sibling, who is now known as Little P, and is working for their uncle's karaoke bar. Emerson tries to convince Little P to sell him the motel, but his brother is in debt to some friends of their thuggish cousins. Even though he's due to leave the country, Emerson feels guilty about leaving Little P to sort out his own problems—particularly after befriending a guidebook writer who has her own axe to grind, and discovering that someone wants his own inheritance, the humble family home now surrounded by skyscrapers.
The foreboding knock at the door that opens Rowan Somerville's The End Of Sleep isn't the police or the embassy come to interrupt Irish expat Fin in his recovery from a drawn-out brawl with an American military consultant. Instead, it's a friendly taxi driver sent at the behest of Fin's best friend Farouk, who grew up in the village of Mena at the base of the pyramids. One quick cup of mint tea, "not tourist tea," launches an accidental odyssey, as Farouk's new car makes him and Fin the target of thugs who believe he hit the daughter of a local kebab-shop owner. Fin feels compelled to clear his friend's name, not only because he's just been fired from his reporting job at the Cairo Herald, but because Farouk started the day with a story—a neighborhood legend so promising that he can't be allowed to die with it.
The separate crimes that embroil Fin and Emerson are to an extent specific to their travels, but their personal bonds keep them from retreating into their comfort zones. Fin's proudest treasure is the kebab-shop news feature for which he and Farouk ate their way down a Cairo street; later on, the memory of a particular kebab helps him locate his friend again. That episode is emblematic of the lighter touch with which Somerville follows his narrative, bolstered by elements of physical comedy provided at his hero's expense (as in the half-day he wanders around in Nile-stained clothes, helpless against villagers' pointing and laughing). Even Emerson, uncomfortable in his skin even in California, winds up groping his way into friendships and associations he wouldn't otherwise have developed, as in the interesting, underdeveloped subplot about an anti-mainland political campaign, for which the author both rewards and punishes him.
But while Somerville delivers Fin through an omniscient narrator who seems to share in the joke, Lin's Emerson narrates his own travels into the Taiwanese underworld, revealing his secrets in clumsy flashbacks that don't build suspense so much as make him look even more crippled in his quest for justice, or a way to dig his brother out. Because Emerson takes himself so seriously when the stakes are low, it's harder to follow him into ominous terrain, with his secret shames absurdly deflated by the appearance of more concrete menaces. He's never exactly vindicated for his trouble, and his quest ends in a way that forces his autonomy nearly past credulity. Fin's trip is more circular, but also more satisfying to the extent that he can accept his adoptive home instead of struggling against it.