B Reads Canada Reads: The Jade Peony

My mom called last Sunday night and to my surprise she mentioned that she's hosting her book club this month and that their pick is The Jade Peony.

"I'm not making any Chinese food!" she protested. "I'm making my Napa cabbage salad! So what did you think about the book?"

"I'd say it was more underwhelming than anything," I replied, always quick to have an opinion on anything, especially when it's a parent doing the asking.

"Me too! That Fall On Your Knees was much better."

Now, see I bristled at that and began some serious backpedaling. Fall On Your Knees is a better book than The Jade Peony? Say it ain't so!

It's hard to compare the two novels because they are so very different - the former is a big meaty story containing multiple plot lines, characters, locations, generations etc. while the latter is set in 1930's-40's Vancouver, it focuses on one Chinese Canadian family and is told from the perspective of three siblings. The prose is clean and simple and its few flourishes are very neat.

The simplicity of this book is an illusion, though - The Jade Peony is a composite of whisper thin layers and while it has a light and airy quality it still has the ability to dazzle. His prose is exceptionally vivid - as an example, look at this passage where Jung-Sum's turtle (King George/Lao Kwei) looks at his owner one last time:
...King George slowly turned his yellow-eyed head to look at me. He did not snap, I remember. Just looked. And from his turtle brain he must have seen me and Bobby Steinberg happily running out of the back yard and away, pulling close our windbreakers against the autumn wind. Perhaps Grandmother was right...Lao Kwei heard ghost voices in that autumn wind.
The prose can also be unexpectedly touching. Choy has a great deal of empathy for his characters - the best example of this is his treatment of the elderly grandmother (Poh Poh) who refuses to part with her Old China ways. She is described as a bit dried up, tough and inflexible, though devoted to her grandchildren, but in this passage Poh Poh shows youngest child Sek-Lung her prized jade carving and in the process Choy shows us a side of her we didn't suspect:
...the small peony of white and light-red jade, her most lucky possession..."This colour is the colour of my spirit," Grandmama said...The silk had to match the pink heart of her pendant, for the colour was magical for her: it held the unraveling strands of her memory."
His prose might be smooth, and a bit cool to the touch (like jade) but he slays you in the details, that Wayson Choy.

The theme of the book appears to revolve around memory of something lost or in the process of departing - of culture, of a loved one. The central conceit of each section is the connection of the character to someone very dear to them - Jook-Liang's elderly friend Wong Suk, Jung Sum's fellow boxer Frank Yeun and Sek-Lung's Poh Poh - and the process of parting from them and remembering them. Choy doesn't heap on the melancholy, though - each character finds a way to absorb and grow from this change.

On the other hand, Choy can't so neatly reconcile the changes Chinese culture faces in Canada. While "familiar stories, familiar phrases, comforted the Elders of Chinatown", Poh Poh's grandchildren are offered no such comfort - they attend English schools, have non-Chinese friends and want to grow beyond a rigid system where, for example, a baby boy's birth merits praise to the ancestors and a girl is called simply mo yung, useless.

The discomfort of being caught between two cultures is even more apparent when World War II breaks out and the Japanese-Canadians are persecuted and moved into camps. The Chinese-Canadians take to wearing buttons saying "I am not Japanese" to try to distance themselves from prejudice. Choy offers no answers to the children's conundrum - perhaps they can be found in the sequel, All That Matters.

Or perhaps there's no resolution because the issue is still relevant today - 2nd etc. generation Canadians still face finding balance between the old ways and assimilation. That fact and Choy's clean, modern style goes a long way towards keeping this book fresh. This is why I can finally safety say that this is an excellent pick for Canada Reads 2010! Phew!


mynovelreviews said...

Great review! I enjoyed The Jade Peony and agree that it is a stong contender for Canada Reads. I still have to read Nikolski and Generation X, but so far my faves are The Jade Peony and Fall on Your Knees.

Marci said...

I have read them all, I still believe that Good To A Fault is the one that is my absolute favorite for many reasons.

The one I really didn't identify or like that much was Generation X.

Fall On Your Knees and The Jade Peony would be my number 2 and 3

BKienapple said...

Marci, I think we're working backwards from each other! I have Gen X at 1, Jade Peony at 2, Fall On Your Knees at 3 and so far Good to a Fault is squarely at #4 (I'm at page 200 right now). We'll see where the final shuffle lies once I'm done Nikolski next week!


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