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review 2016-11-10 21:55
The Jade Peony (Choy)
The Jade Peony - Wayson Choy

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.

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review 2016-09-18 04:36
The Girl on the Train (Hawkins)
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

And here I come, hopping on the train as usual after everyone else has had (and thoroughly reviewed) the ride. At least I managed to stay unspoiled! As it was, I had a pretty good idea of the likely culprit(s) by about half-way through, and the twist (such as it was) was signalled a fair bit before it was announced. So it wasn't so much edge-of-my-seat reading as a-hah-here-we-go reading. I have a great fondness for multiple narrators, particularly if one or more of them is clearly unreliable, so that particular itch was scratched here in abundance. For me, it also worked that, of the six main characters, the three females were the observers and the three males the observed.  I found myself getting quite protective of Rachel, the narrator whose voice we hear the most, and who is the most obviously fallible, being an alcoholic with little self-control and very faulty recollection. The other two women are, deliberately I think, less sympathetic. All three are, to some extent, battling with baby issues - having, or wanting, or losing; all three are to some extent victims of emotional abuse by men, and one man in particular.  The book isn't blindly misandrist, by the way - there's a decent man who acts as the sort of touchstone and centre of communication as things get sorted out. And amongst the minor characters, the male policeman is shown as a more sympathetic character than the female.

I didn't read this in one sitting (something I almost never do these days), but for me it was a rapid 2-day read nonetheless, made more pleasant by reading in largish type in a solid hardback. As I read, it was almost impossible not to see it as the basis for a movie (I understand one is forthcoming). It had the expected shape - character development, a problematic event, then one-on-one revelatory encounters between all the main characters, followed by a resolution by personal violence. The train rumbled through all the main scenes, reflecting back various emotional states and existential problems for each character.

Decently put together, and it held my interest throughout. Recommended, if you're one of the very few people on the planet who haven't already read it!

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review 2016-07-12 21:30
The Book of Negroes (Hill)
The Book of Negroes: A Novel (Movie Tie-in Edition) (Movie Tie-in Editions) - Lawrence Hill

I feel as though I learned a great deal reading this wonderful novel. I have never known much about the specifics of the slave trade, or about slavery in the U.S., and Hill, with his extensive research, has managed to make it clear how very complex and nuanced the whole thing was, with multiple agents all pursuing their own ends. The parts of the novel dealing with the well-intentioned but badly realized resettlement attempts of slaves in both Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone were equally interesting, and, in some ways, just as distressing.

 

I don't know if Hill has stretched the possible by making his female narrator as impressively literate and articulate as he has, but I know I appreciate Aminata Diallo as a character very much because of that articulateness, so I entirely forgive him if that's a bit of an anachronism. The one thing I might not completely forgive is the somewhat unlikely reunion of mother and daughter (May) in London at the end of Aminata's life, but since I was thoroughly caught up in her desolation and isolation as life took from her one loved one or dear friend after another, I felt the need of that sweetness too. Fiction can afford to be a little more generous than life, perhaps.

 

I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that the American publisher chose to change the historically accurate and very appropriate title, for fear of poor sales (and worse). I listened to President Obama's emotional speech on the subject of American race relations today, and was humbly grateful to live in a country where - while we are far from having the answers or solving the bigotry problem - race relations are, for various historical reasons, decidedly less explosive a topic.

 

Aminata's narrative - this novel - is positioned by the frame as a slave narrative that would help push forward the British abolition of the slave trade (and, much later, slavery itself). However, Hill did not attempt to mimic the sound or format of genuine slave narratives from the period, and I'm rather glad he didn't, because it allowed him to give Aminata a much stronger novelistic voice, incorporating direct dialogue and personal reflections in a way that just would not ring true if placed more consciously in the 18th-century literary voice.

 

I've come late to Lawrence Hill. I have a feeling it won't take me nearly as long to get to another one of his works.

 

Very highly recommended.

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