Arts & Life
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This article was published 27/5/2011 (3361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Better Mother
By Jen Sookfong Lee
Knopf Canada, 368 pages, $30
Set in Vancouver's gritty Chinatown, this romantic and heart-wrenching literary novel focuses on an aging burlesque dancer and a closeted gay man at the dawn of the AIDs era.
Vancouver author and broadcaster Sookfong Lee is able to get under the "powdered" or "hastily washed" skins of both characters in a remarkable manner; their mutual longing for validation in the form of lives constructed around idealized visions of freedom and glamour is palpable.
Virtually oozing with sensuous and romantic longing, Lee's tale of love and truth is not the sexually charged kind. Rather, it is a beautiful and tragic representation of vanity, disillusionment and hope.
The lifelong connection between "Miss Val," the dancer, and Danny Lim begins in 1958 in a Chinatown back alley. Valerie Nealy exits through the back door of one of the clubs in which she performs her glamorous and playful act, encountering the frightened and fascinated eight-year-old Danny.
Sent by his cold and hostile father, the owner of a Chinatown curio shop, to buy cigarettes, Danny loses his money.
Amused, moved and flattered by his obvious awe upon encountering Miss Val, who is "everything beautiful that he has ever imagined, more beautiful than Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth or even the stars in the night sky," the performer gives him a pack of cigarettes and her emerald green silk satin belt.
Temporarily, then, Danny is able to avoid his father's derision. Val and Danny share an, albeit, brief moment in which both feel as though they exist as their true selves.
Each coddles a version of this memory, cherishing and embroidering it as the years pass and, although they do not see one another for another 24 years, they live vividly and sensuously in each other's fibres as actual (if not more "real") companions to one another.
Lee has traversed poetry, youth fiction and journalism. Having grown up in Vancouver's East Side, she describes the contrast between wealth and poverty on downtown Vancouver streets with clarity and insight.
Anyone familiar with the city will recognize the abruptly shifting moods among streets such as Davie, Georgia and Burrard and, perhaps, Miss Val's characterization of Vancouver as a "wind-blown city built on logging, drink and soil spongy with rain."
The underworlds of burlesque clubs and late-night cruising in Stanley Park are the provinces of those who are not missed by families and remain unseen by those in mainstream society.
Women who take their clothes off for a meagre living and Asian men who fulfil their shame-filled needs in dank bushes are viewed as social pariahs, capable of infecting passers-by with their perversions.
With remarkable facility, Lee breathes life into two characters who lead lives of relative anonymity, interspersed with fleeting bursts of joy and gratification.
This novel is a moving example of the way in which memories can become "ghosts, clinging to the body like the anchoring threads of a spider web," and chance encounters can lead to enduring love.
Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer with a fondness for emerald green.
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