ALL THAT MATTERS by Wayson Choy (Doubleday), 424 pages, $35.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
WAYSON CHOY reading tonight (Thursday, October 28), as part of a round table, and at the Giller finale reading, Saturday (October 30). See Authors Fest listings, page 51.
Billed as a long-awaited sequel to Wayson Choy's lauded first novel, 1995's The Jade Peony, All That Matters (shortlisted for this year's Giller Prize) feels more like the Toronto author's attempt to reconstitute bits of the story that got cut the first time around.
Also set in Vancouver's Chinatown between the wars, the plot of All That Matters runs concurrently with The Jade Peony's triple-layer narratives, harnessing the voice of First Son Kiam-Kim (a vague figure in the backdrop of the first novel) to put a new spin on the chaotic cultural landscape previously described by his three younger siblings.
As Kiam arrives in Canada and comes of age in a volatile, often xenophobic environment, we watch him grapple with the complex family dynamics - forged papers, adopted siblings, a concubine stepmother sent from the Old Country - that he instinctively realizes he must whitewash in order to fit in and avoid bureaucratic hassles.
Choy's matter-of-fact prose follows the narrator in a gentle, predictable chronology, offering little tension outside the mundane struggles of day-to-day life. Even the emotional climaxes - a romantic betrayal, racial tensions after Japan invades China, the crisis of war - seem more like sighs than passionate screams.
We've heard the story before, and better . The interwoven threads of The Jade Peony provide a more engaging, ethically complex take on the events Kiam experiences. And as a character, Kiam's too wholesome and unconflicted to juice up his narrative with much-needed drama.
Choy's a talented writer who tells stories that need to be heard. I can't wait till he finds new and rich characters to tell them.