The End of East By Jen Sookfong Lee
Random House of Canada launched the New Face of Fiction program more than a decade ago, a publishing program devoted to bringing spectacular first-time Canadian writers to readers. Louise Denny, Executive Publisher at Knopf Canada says "the New Face of Fiction program has launched the careers of many beloved writers who are familiar names, including Ann-Marie MacDonald and most recently, Ami McKay whose novel The Birth House has found its way into many hearts and onto many bookshelves. Every year Knopf Canada editors choose between one and four books based on the high quality of the writing and incredible storytelling ability. We look for writers who reveal something of Canadian life or of the human soul. And this year’s selections are no different."
Some of my own favourites from the New Face of Fiction program have been What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin, The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel, Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Crow Lake by Mary Lawson. Jen Sookfong Lee joins this illustrious company this spring with the publication of her novel The End of East.
The End of East tells the story of three generations of the Chan family. Seid Quan is the first to arrive in Vancouver in 1913, where he becomes a barber. He returns to China to marry and father his children but he cannot afford to bring them to Canada - until he brings his son Pon Man, as a teenager. Pon Man is at first unhappy about his new life but comes to realize that his father is a respected member of the Chinese community. Pon Man works for Seid Quan at first but is later able to choose his own career. Seid Chan's wife, Shew Lin, finally arrives in Vancouver several years later, now a woman in her 50s, after many years of dreaming.
Their reunion is one of the loveliest passages in the novel. "Naked she was clearly an older woman. Flesh sat on her hips softly, in layers. Her breasts were flat, and the bones of her shoulders and neck stuck out, sharp like knives.
She looked at him and her eyes flickered - once for embarrassment, twice for longing". "Come in", she said. "It's cold out in the hall." She can write, this young author, and as well as thoroughly enjoying the story she tells, I very much enjoyed the way Jen Sookfong Lee uses her words.
Pon Man marries Siu Sang, a beautiful and happy girl from China, who finds the adjustment to life in Canada almost too difficult to bear.
They have five daughters together, and it is the youngest, Sammy who comes home to care for her increasingly frail mother as the novel begins. Sammy has been at university in Montreal and is not completely unhappy about leaving behind a relationship to return to Vancouver. First novels are often quite autobiographical and Lee herself, did find a copy of her grandfather's head tax certificate, as Sammy does in the novel.
"When I first started thinking about Chinese Canadian history I was about 19," says Lee, "and the Lee Association, which is one of those clan associations, had this big banquet. My grandfather was dead by then, and I was there with my mom. And all these really old, super-old, 99-year-olds were coming up to me – they were drunk–and telling me how great my grandfather was.
It was the first time it even occurred to me that my grandfather even had a life in Chinatown before all of us. So it was kind of a wake-up call for me: 'Wait a minute. Chinatown has been here forever!'" "My family, which is actually quite a noisy family usually, doesn’t talk about that sort of thing. . . . And the first time I even heard of the head tax, I must have been about 16, and the redress movement was starting up again and my mother . . . started talking about how my grandfather paid the head tax."
As the character, Sammy, learns about her grandfather's life, she also learns about the past life of her own parents, and comes to understand her difficult mother. Sammy is the youngest of five daughters born into a culture that did not value girls. Just as Sammy's own mother was called "useless" by her mother, so is Sammy. Pon Man seems to be perfectly happy with a home full of daughters but his own mother never tires of criticizing his wife. This creates some conflict within the family but the responsibilities and obligations of family hold them together.
This is ultimately a story of family, the expectations and disappointments. The culture of these Chinese Canadians is fascinating, and the story weaves seamlessly from one generation to another, filling in the details as it expands. It was lovely to read - and leaves readers looking forward to the next novel from this very talented young writer.