Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Jade Peony

Chinatown, Vancouver, in the late 1930s and '40s provides the backdrop for this poignant first novel, told through the vivid reminiscences of the three younger children of an immigrant Chinese family. The siblings grapple with their individual identities in a changing world, wresting autonomy from the strictures of history, family, and poverty.

Sister Jook-Liang dreams of becoming Shirley Temple and escaping the rigid, old ways of China. Adopted Second Brother Jung-Sum, struggling with his sexuality and the trauma of his childhood in China, finds his way through boxing. Third Brother Sekky, who never feels comfortable with the multitude of Chinese dialects swirling around him, becomes obsessed with war games, and learns a devastating lesson about what war really means when his 17-year-old babysitter dates a Japanese man.

Mingling with life in Canada and the horror of war are the magic, ghosts, and family secrets of Poh-Poh, or Grandmother, who is the heart and pillar of the family. Side by side, her three grandchildren survive hardships and heartbreaks with grit and humor. Like the jade peony of the title, Choy's storytelling is at once delicate, powerful, and lovely.

The Jade Peony was one of those books that I lost myself in...I loved the setting, the 30's in Vancouver with immigrants and their children. The children grow up with the old country morals and tales while living in a different culture who doesn't necessarily understand where they are coming from. As a daughter of immigrants I can understand the confusion of blending the new and old.

Each sibling has a section in the book. Jook-Liang, the only sister, has a beautiful relationship with an elderly man, she loves hearing his stories and he loves to watch her perform. Jung-Sum, the middle adopted brother, struggles with belonging, remembering his biological parents and a sense that he is different from the other boys. And then there's the baby of the family, Sekky, who everyone think is brainless because of his health issues; he forms a interesting friendship with his babysitter and learns a difficult lesson very early in his life.

My only complaint was that it wasn't enough, I wanted to know what happened next.

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy (4/5) Historical Fiction; Published: Douglas & McIntyre (10/95); New Author; Canadian Author; Canada Reads 2010; What's In A Name? (2); Year of the Historical (8); Canadian Book Challenge (12); Books 2010 (54);

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