Although the story is an intimate portrait of the Chinese immigrant experience, it manages to become larger than that in scope, appealing to readers of any generation, age, and cultural background as a masterful bildungsroman. Throughout the overarching linear narration, Li deftly moves between spaces (America and China), times (the 1980s and the 1990s, it seems), and perspectives (various members of the three Chinese families featured). The ever-shifting narration creates a sense of disorientation, mimicking the protagonist’s own emotional state as he struggles to adapt to new surroundings and the increasing instability of his family life ... What Li accomplishes, as Lahiri and others have done before, is to put in stark relief the continuing social, emotional, and psychological consequences of the Faustian bargain struck when making the decision to leave one’s country to come to another.
...labels do not adequately describe the high quality of writing, subtlety of construction, or fresh look at the subject ... The child is enormously intelligent, and his narration is seasoned by comments from years after the action, but these, rather than intruding, or lessening the story, broaden and deepen it ... This seamless novel beautifully shows the passage of time, mixing familiar worlds of childhood and the very trying world of immigrant adults ... The writing is remarkable for its lack of self-pity ... The style is fluent. It surprises, in the way a reader likes to be surprised, takes chances, and fits the story the way a seasoned novelist suits the word to the action ... I doubt there will be many better published this year.
Li has written an intense work that provides a rarely seen aspect of the Asian-American experience. Rather than goofy grins and happy-go-lucky attitude of an American family, here is rawness and pain. The novel is a dark, panoramic portrayal of boyhood, growing up in a first generation immigrant multi-family household set in a familiar Boston but interspersed with memories of China ... Li also moves through time effortlessly, painting vivid flashbacks to poignant moments of a life left behind in China, one that included reciting poetry, attending an elaborate wedding banquet and discussing the dream of America ... Transoceanic Lights is a singular contribution to the immigrant narrative and a necessary new voice to the growing genre of Asian-American literature.
Ma, who’s treated sympathetically, complains to her beloved sister in China in a series of phone calls; this is about as interesting as listening in on a party line. Out of left field, the author inserts the story of another brother, Lone Eye, detailing how the bed-hopping lady’s man got his name (wrong bed, angry husband). There are more flashbacks, and a trip back to China for Ma, but the novel doesn’t break out of the stifling family circle to explore the wider world beyond ... A family drama that refuses to jell.