THE END OF EAST by Jen Sookfong Lee (Knopf), 243 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Appearing in the year of the federal government's official apology for the head tax, The End Of East is very timely.
But don't read this story of three generations of Chinese Canadians because it's important. Read it because it's got a deep emotional charge.
The book begins with Sammy coming home to Vancouver to care for her aging mother on the eve of her sister's wedding. Sammy loathes the city and is bitter about being forced to return.
As the narrative weaves between past and present, we come to understand the source of her resentment. Her grandfather Seid Quan comes to Canada when he's just 18. Weighed down by the heavy expectations of family back home - a recurring theme in the book - and racism in his adopted land, he works desperately hard at his barbershop to pay off his head tax and send cash back home to China.
Finally, when he's able to bring his son Pon Man to Canada, he thwarts Pon Man's artistic aspirations, arranges a marriage for him and watches as Pon Man and his new wife, Siu Sang, do the unthinkable - raise five daughters, no sons. Sammy, the fifth and youngest, feels the full weight of her extended family's disappointment.
Debut novelist Lee offers moments of searing power, whether she's chronicling the white riots against the Chinese community in the early 1900s or evoking Siu Sang's post-partum depression and her mother-in-law's cruel reaction to it.
Lee drops a few of the threads. It's not totally clear how Sammy picked up her predilection for rough sex and exactly what went wrong with her boyfriend, Matt, in Montreal.
But that's a small complaint. In the end, and this is definitely one of the author's main intentions, we're just hoping Sammy and her mother make their peace.