Genie Macleod reviews Jen Sookfong Lee‘s latest novel The Better Mother. Readers can nominate this novel to get on the longlist for the 2011 Giller Prize until August 28.
Once upon a time in Vancouver, the infamous Penthouse Night Club at Seymour and Nelson was not the sleazy, beer-soaked, stag-party staple it is today. When it opened in the 1950s, it was one of the hottest supper clubs around, with guests such as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gary Cooper coming for dinner and staying for the show (if you know what I mean). This was the golden age of burlesque, when being a stripper meant creating a character, telling a story, and only stripping down to your pasties and panties.
In another less dazzling bygone era of Vancouver, when bus shelters on Davie Street were not painted bubblegum pink, and rainbow flags were scarce, whispers of a mysterious and vicious epidemic were exchanged in hushed tones.
These seemingly separate periods of Vancouver’s history provide the backdrop for Jen Sookfong Lee‘s latest novel, The Better Mother. Thirty-something Danny Lim is a struggling photographer looking for his money shot and trying to keep his active social and sex life in Vancouver’s gay community a secret from his conservative and traditional parents.
His agonizing story of growing up different in a family that prizes conformity finds an unlikely match in the history of Miss Val, a.k.a. the Siamese Kitten, an aging former stripper whom Danny befriends. Miss Val is no stranger to hardship. She grew up in poverty, witnessed the tragic death of a family member, suffered a cruel betrayal by her first lover, and turned to stripping when she had no other option. She can sympathize with Danny’s dream of exchanging his drab rule-bound life for a vibrant glamorous one full of satin and sequins.
Lee writes with her pen attuned to every detail of sensory experience. You can feel the pulse of the music and the blinding glare of lights as Miss Val struts around the dance hall’s stages. When Danny’s mother is cooking in her tiny Chinatown kitchen, the oil in the pan seemingly rises from the page and seeps into your skin.
While the dialogue felt slightly stilted at times, my heart was with Danny and Miss Val every step of the way―breaking as they exchanged their stories of struggle, and swelling as they helped one another find the courage to conquer their demons. The Better Mother is a poignant and beautifully told story of the value of friendship and family.
For more about Jennifer Sookfong Lee and her other works, visit her official website sookfong.com.
Submit your nomination for The Better Mother from August 2 to 28 at the Giller Prize website.
Genie is an editorial assistant for Schema Magazine and self-appointed seeker-out of Schema-worthy events in Vancouver. She is a certified bookworm with a special fondness for Shakespeare and CanLit. You can follow her on Twitter @geniemak