The third of the Canada Reads books I’m reviewing (the second one I’m actually reading at the moment, since one was a pre-read I didn’t want to re-read) is a novel about three children — a girl, Jook-Liang, and her brothers Jung-Sum and Sek-Lung — growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown during World War Two.
There were parallels here to two novels I’ve read recently, Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and Jamie Ford’s Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (both of which were written later than Jade Peony, but I read them first, so in my mind they covered the territory first) — there are similar aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience dealt with in both, and details, such as the “I AM CHINESE” button worn by characters both in this novel and in Bitter and Sweet to distinguish themselves from the hated Japanese during the war years.
Growing up in Chinatown is viewed by three different narrators in The Jade Peony — each of the three children narrates one of the book’s three sections, and of course each of them sees life, their family, and the immigrant experience in different ways. The three stories also introduce us to a variety of vivid and memorable characters: Wong Bak, the elderly “monkey man” who becomes Jook-Liang’s only friend and confident in her early childhood; tough guy Frank Yuen, Jung-Sum’s mentor; schoolteacher Miss Doyle who keeps Sek-Lung’s class on the edge of their seats with letters from her brother in England about the London Blitz; and Sek-Lung’s babysitter, the beautiful Meiying who commits the unpardonable sin of falling in love with a Japanese boy.
Perhaps the most vivid of all the story’s characters is Poh-Poh, the children’s grandmother, a steely matriarch who looms large in the story and exerts a powerful influence over the family even after her death. The nameless “Stepmother” — who is actually Jook-Liang’s and Sek-Lung’s birthmother, but who is called “Stepmother” even by her own children simply because she’s their father’s second wife — cowers in her mother-in-law’s formidable shadow, but gets in one good stand-up-and-cheer moment for herself by the end of the novel.
This is an absolutely vivid and engaging story of life for second-generation immigrants at a turbulent time in Canadian (and world) history. My only complaint was that the structure of the novel — three separate stories in three separate parts — made it feel more like three linked novellas than a single novel. I felt that in each case I was just getting involved with each narrator when his or her story ended, which didn’t allow me to become as emotionally involved in a character’s struggles as I like to do when reading a novel. Nonetheless, it was an interesting and informative read, though I don’t think there’s any danger of it rivalling Good to a Fault as my favourite (so far) among the Canada Reads choices.