>>> Ann Y.K. Choi’s voice rises with Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety

KAY’S LUCKY COIN VARIETY by Ann Y.K. Choi (Simon & Schuster), 276 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN

It always amazes me when a debut novelist features predictable themes – maybe bordering on clichés – and still comes out with something extremely effective.

So it is with Ann Y.K. Choi’s first novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, whose release coincides with Asian Heritage Month. 

The Korean corner store is reaching near-iconic status. A successful store was a running joke in Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and it was the setting for the great Canadian stage play Kim’s Convenience. 

Here, in 1980s Toronto, Choi’s protagonist Mary (born Yu-Rhee) works at her family’s convenience mart at Queen and Bathurst. Her parents have laboured long hours and given up everything to make the store successful, but the teenaged Mary appreciates little of that. She has ambitions of her own that go beyond working the cash at a corner store.

There’s a lot to like here. For one thing, it’s a sharp snapshot of Toronto at the time: the just burgeoning Koreatown, U of T’s huge, intimidating buildings, the track where sex workers plied their trade near Trinity Bellwoods, which made the neighbourhood more than a little sketchy.

A violent episode increases Mary’s sense of vulnerability, making her more determined to get out from under what she considers her controlling family. Choi deals deftly with the tensions between a teenager wanting to embrace Canadian culture and her parents, who are determined that she go to university, yes, but marry a Korean. They go so far as to encourage Joon-Ho, who has his own problems, to move to Toronto to study engineering, hoping he and Mary will wed.

This is certainly not the first novel to deal with these kinds of conflicts. What works here is the way Mary thinks she knows everything about her family when in fact she’s missing a lot of information. Her discoveries – including, but not focusing on, an intriguing connection to the history of comfort women – are part of her journey to adulthood. 

Also excellent is Choi’s focus on Mary’s relationship with her former English teacher, on whom she’s had a lasting intense crush. That relationship borders on creepy, and Choi expertly navigates these tricky waters.

It’s the saving grace of one of those predictable first-novel themes: the protagonist as aspiring writer. I’ve always found the motif more than a little irritating, since, given that the book is in our hot little hands, we know that issue will have a satisfying resolution.

Also problematic is the way Choi can’t let a plot development just resonate. Mary explicitly describes her feelings when she could just say something to another character or do something to indicate what she’s thinking about things.

Choi takes on an awful lot – sex work, sibling rivalry, generational tension, post-violence trauma – so some of it gets glossed over. This is especially true of her high school friendships, which disintegrate until one pal appears again out of nowhere. 

But the characters are believable, especially Mary’s mother, who’s loving but has a hard time expressing it, and the book has a powerful emotional core. Few Korean-Canadian novelists have been heard from so far, making Choi’s book a welcome breath of fresh air.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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