Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Better Mother by Jen Sookfong Lee

Born in Vancouver in 1950, a gay boy comes of age in his Chinese family, feeling like an alien. Danny feels more affinity for an exotic dancer that he meets in a Chinatown alley than for his own mother. In the early 1980s, Danny works as a wedding photographer by day and cruises for anonymous sex in Stanley Park at night. Moving back and forth through time, Danny's story intertwines with that of the dancer, who is known as Miss Val or the Siamese Kitten.

This all sounded promising, but I was disappointed because Jen Sookfong Lee's style put me off. Both Danny and Miss Val seemed like stock characters. Danny is attracted to fashion and silky fabrics from a young age and that sums up his early gayness. Couldn't Lee have done better in imagining him?

After three chapters, I skimmed through the middle, read the ending and brought it back to the library. It annoyed me to be told what Danny was feeling, rather than being shown: "The fulfillment of his wants helps him to believe that he is not a failure" when he's on his way home from another faceless sexual encounter. Danny's poor relationship with his father was presented as a given, with minimal exploration. To be fair, there might have been more character development in the middle parts that I skimmed. I didn't pay much attention to Miss Val's backstory, which included giving up her daughter.

Lee was inspired by a real-life photographer of burlesque dancers, Theodore Saskatche Wan. I found the author's note at the end more interesting than anything else in the book.

Readers who liked The Secret Daughter are likely to also enjoy The Better Mother. Another character-driven historical set in Vancouver's Chinatown (and one that I loved) is The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy.

No comments: