MIDNIGHT AT THE DRAGON CAFÉ by Judy Fong Bates (McClelland & Stewart), $19.99 paper, 315 pages. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Ever wondered what life is like for the people running the one Chinese restaurant in a small Ontario town?
This fascinating first novel by Judy Fong Bates tells you all about it: the isolation, the alienation, the hope.
In the late 50s, six-year-old Su-Jen leaves Hong Kong with her mother for Irvine, Ontario - home of a reeking tannery - where her father runs the Chinese restaurant.
Su-Jen's mother is young, beautiful and bitter at leaving home to live with her much older husband.
Though Su-Jen, who takes on the Canadian name Annie, thrives at school, tensions thicken in the tiny apartment upstairs from the eatery.
And when Su-Jen's much older brother leaves Owen Sound to join the Irvine business, emotions careen out of control.
In spare, precise, sometimes poetic prose, Bates evokes the young girl's difficult friendships outside her home and the near-impossible dilemma she faces inside it.
She knows too much about the competing desires within her family. Her father is content to work and make almost no money.
Her mother misses Hong Kong and feels trapped and isolated.
Her brother has his own ideas about how to run a restaurant, and his relationship with Su-Jen's mother is taking on a strange tinge.
Bates is a little clumsy in foreshadowing some of the novel's key events, but this is an absorbing read, illuminating a way of life that exists in some form all across the country.