Sunday, March 25, 2007

view and review

The End of East
By Jen Sookfong Lee
Knopf Canada, 243 pages, $30

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

AT first blush, Vancouver writer Jen Sookfong Lee's portrait of three generations of an immigrant Chinese family is a respectable entry in what has almost become a regional sub-genre -- the epic Asian-Canadian novel.

What sets The End of East apart from much-beloved stories like Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981) and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (1995) is how it both subscribes to and resists the conventions of the genre.

Samantha, the youngest of the five Chan girls, is the central character of the novel.

She has spent the last six years attending university in Montreal when she gets the news that her next older sister is getting married.

In short, Sammy has been summoned home to take care of their widowed mother.

Although she resents this familial compulsion, Sammy knows that "leaving Vancouver was like leaving myself."

The two generations that precede Sammy to Vancouver know all about leaving vital parts of themselves behind. Each of them came to Canada to find a better life and each is, in his or her own way, disappointed.

So, let's see... set in Vancouver, also known as Gold Mountain, also known as Salt Water City? Check.

Multi-generational, sweeping story focused at least in part on the suffering and privations meted out to the first Asian immigrants to Canada? Check.

Told from the point of view of a Canadian-born child torn between her heritage and the wider world? Check.

Lyrical writing that evokes the richness of Asian culture even under duress? Nope.

Interestingly, Lee chooses to jettison the elegiac tone and cultural voyeurism usually on offer in the epic Asian-Canadian novel.

Instead she gives us a chilly, unidiomatic account and reserves her lyricism for gritty contemporary descriptions of Vancouver.

Sammy may be the main character, but great swathes of The End of East are told from the point of view of her parents and grandparents.

This is where Lee's inexperience as a novelist tells. She has a tendency to pick up and discard characters as if they were suits of clothes, which makes it difficult to care deeply for any of them.

We spend 40 pages with Sammy's grandfather Seid Quan, at the beginning of the novel, for instance, but then he vanishes until the very end, where he very quietly dies.

This isn't a surprise, given that he was 94, but neither does there seem to be any significance to his life, except that it was lived.

Sammy, ultimately, is the only one who has a measure of choice offered to her. But after six years away, all Sammy has to show for her efforts is an unfinished thesis, an unpainted apartment, and great dollops of anxiety as to where she belongs:

"Walking down Ste-Catherine or St-Denis, past the well-dressed Montrealers, I had become convinced that they could smell the stink of Vancouver's Chinatown -- durian and rain-soaked cardboard boxes -- leaking out of my pores."

And after all of Lee's slow and careful set-up, The End of East resolves itself shockingly fast: deaths, rebirths and reconciliations whiz by.

None of this should take away from the fact that Lee has written a very brave novel with many intriguing angles and layers.

Here's hoping, however, that in her next outing the cleverness is leavened with a little more conviction.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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