The fourth book in my series for CBC Canada Reads is The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy.
Let’s cut right to the chase: This was an okay book, but not a favourite by any means. Of the four books I’ve head, it’s sitting solidly in third place. Nikolski and Fall On Your Knees both had some resonance with me through their stories and memorable characters, while Generation X inspired an intense repulsion. The Jade Peony was just… meh.
The novel is told through the eyes of three children in the same family in the roughly 5 to 15 age range, living in Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1930s and 1940s. On the face of it this could have had very similar results to Nikolski and Fall On Your Knees, which featured multiple points of view and stories that connected in different ways, but Peony utterly failed to make that connection. The three stories—despite being told at the same time in the same family—could not be more disconnected.
Part one features Jook-Liang and her friendship with the Monkey Man. Part two was about Jung-Sum and his budding sexuality. Part Three was a bit more diverse, as we saw Sek-Lung go through the death of his grandmother, starting school, and witnessing a Romeo and Juliet type relationship between a Chinese/Japanese pair. Each story stands completely on its own. In the last section, for example, we read
My two stepbrothers naturally felt superior. Kiam was fifteen and getting all A’s at King Edward High; Jung was twelve and was learning how to box like Joe Louis at the Hastings Gym.
That’s about all the crossover we get. Compare this to Ann-Marie MacDonald’s writing style in Fall On Your Knees, in which half a dozen characters are blended together so expertly, moving from one point of view to another in such a way that every character, every setting, and every event has half a dozen dimensions to it. Compare this to the characters in Nikolski, who have connections between them that are painfully evident to the reader but frustratingly just out of reach for the characters themselves. I actually felt my gut wrench when the characters came so close to realizing their bond. In comparison Choy’s characters are completely flat. Each tells a particular story, completely isolated from the other two, in an identical, formal, grown-up and completely neutered narration.
There was potential here, and at times some of that did show through. The forbidden romance (both of them). The tension between old and new. The war. The grandmother. The histories that brought the family together. But none of it really came through. Even the grandmother, which I suspect will be brought up as a common thread in the three stories and the source of much of the novel’s meaning, struck me as a cardboard cutout stereotype. There wasn’t enough depth. I don’t feel connected to any of it.
So while not terrible, there’s nothing much memorable about The Jade Peony either. It filled some time, but that’s about it.