Robin van Eck
A Review of
The Better Mother
By Jen Sookfong Lee
Knopf Canada (2011)
ISBN 978-0-307-39950-2/ 0-307-39950-8
In The Better Mother, by Vancouver writer Jen Sookfong Lee, we follow Danny Lim from the back alleys of 1950’s Chinatown in Vancouver — where he meets a burlesque dancer named the Siamese Kitten — to the early 80’s when HIV and AIDS became more prevalent among the gay community.
The Better Mother is told through some of the strongest prose I’ve ever read. The world comes alive through vivid imagery as seen here:
He slips into the shadows, hears the click and clack of mah-jong tiles from the third-floor windows echoing off the tall buildings. The air is damp, as if all the rain that fell during the spring has been trapped in the cracks between bricks and uncovered garbage cans, and sharpens the smell of barbecued pork and overripe fruit that stings the insides of his nostrils (3).
The prose is heavy, mimicking the tone of the novel which is perfect considering the clear theme of weight, or burdens, throughout. The weight of the city and his secrets:
This is the damp Vancouver that Danny knows. The Vancouver he hurries across, where the shadows and crowds and fog provide cover for the men who populate his open nights. This is the Vancouver where he sometimes sees glimmers of old lovers through the rain; one stands ghostlike in the half-lit alleys, blue eyes pulsing through the gloom. (26)
The weight of his parents ridicule:
Danny can feel the oil from the cast-iron wok hurling droplets through the air and settling on his hair and skin. He squints and his mother’s outline emerges through the hot, greasy fog. (20)
Like so many who hold on to their past like a security blanket, as if the suffering and pain is all that holds them together, Danny searches for something better. But as many learn, often too late, going back is not always the answer. Sometimes they have to let go and move forward accepting who and what they are and where they came from. Jen Sookfong Lee demonstrates this discovering and growth in her prose:
Living in a world of his own making and escaping from a house in which he never belonged are his two successes (15),
The camera bangs against his chest but he doesn’t notice; he is concentrating on the incline of the street ahead of him, and how long it will take him to reach the top of the hill and rush down the other side (35).
The Better Mother is a fabulous read. The writer in me was jealous and mesmerized by this brilliantly crafted novel and flawless attention to detail. And the reader in me appreciated the beautiful story.
Exclusive FreeFall blog content! For more information about FreeFall Magazine check out our website.