I enjoyed this. It feels as though I took a trip - or rather three trips, since it consists of three linked first-person narratives - into a cultural place I knew nothing about, namely the Chinese community in Vancouver before and during WWII. While the three narratives are from the point of view of children aged 12 or under during their stories, the voices are not nearly as consciously naive as, say, Jack's voice in Room. There are certain omissions in reporting where we're invited to fill in the blanks from an adult point of view (notably the tragic event at the very end of the third narrative) but there's no effort to limit either the vocabulary or the general understanding of the three narrators. I didn't mind this at all: it allowed for a more transparent view of the most interesting aspect of this novel, namely the complexities, contrasts and trials of being either the immigrant generation or the next generation of a racialized group in the early 20th century.
To oversimplify: Jook-Liang (only sister) is a girl, therefore very undervalued by her Old China grandmother and sees that her mother is likewise badly undervalued; she finds validation in the warmth and attention of a very elderly disabled male family friend. Jung-Sum (second brother) is adopted from a background of domestic abuse, and grows up idolizing masculine pursuits like boxing, while trying to make himself strong. In the process of taking on a stronger fighter than himself, he discovers male-male attraction. Sek-Lung, third brother, is a sickly child who compensates for his weakness by playing endless war games - the war is on and gruesome stories of hostilities with the Japanese abound even in his circumscribed world; he finds himself both companion and hanger-on to a neighbouring young woman who has a tragic Romeo & Juliet relationship with a young Japanese man. In many ways, the subtitle of the novel might be "finding your comfort where you can". For old Poh-Poh, the grandmother who dominates proceedings during the first two narratives, and even from the grave in the third, the old country culture is the best answer, and she has a talisman of fragility and beauty - the jade peony - that travels to the youngest son and is given as a sort of comfort at the end to the children's mother as she mourns the cruelties of the world - especially to one particular young woman - that cannot be controlled.
The characterizations of the various people, both Chinese and those who are foreign to them (the white Canadians and the Japanese) are well drawn and vivid.. There is lots of quotidian incident but (other than the ending) very little drama, though we are made aware of the dreadful pressures of the wartime world - including the beginnings of the Japanese internship - all around them.
I understand that the story of the fourth and eldest child (first brother Kiam) subsequently got its own novel, and I fully intend to hunt that one down and read it too.
Very good indeed.