(Not so) recently I had the opportunity to attend an author reception for Sadie Jones, a first time author, with a fellow blogger. While I was there, I mentioned to another attendee that I had planned on reviewing the guest of honour’s book, The Outcast, together with the book The End of East, written by first-time novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, which I had also recently read. I commented that I found the two novels similar in many ways, apart from the fact that they were both first books from new female authors, but that I felt that The Outcast, to be the far superior first effort. She seemed surprised that I found them similar novels and commented that that they were quite different, but in typical fashion for me I immediately found myself flustered, lost my train of thought and floundered as I tried desperately to gather my thoughts and not sound like a complete idiot. Of course, mere minutes later I could coherently organize my arguments for my position, but the moment had passed, and I never did find the opportunity to defend my position.
Lee’s novel is, loosely, the story of an Chinese immigrant family living inVancouver’s Chinatown. At a mere 243 pages, this is not a dense family epic, but rather several snapshots of the three generations of the Wong family as seen through the eyes of the not-so-dutiful daughter, Sammy Chan, who has returned home from her life in Montreal to take care of her aging mother. The story begins with the immigration of Sammy’s grandfather, Seid Quan, to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his immense loneliness. It then follows the family as Seid Quan’s son, Pon Man, eventually joins his father in Canada and marries, and the lives of his wife and children.
I had mixed feelings about this book. As I read the book I couldn’t help but feel that Lee had taken a primer course on “powerful first novels” and “bright new voices” and had sought to put all of the elements of that type of novel into her book. Which is my verbose way of saying that the writing felt very forced at times, as though in Lee’s attempt, perhaps, to write “beautiful and compelling descriptions” she loses sign of what she was describing in the first place.
The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.
The End of East, page viii
There were some parts of this book that were compelling, and the sense of loneliness and isolation shines through. I felt Lee really hit her stride when she describes Sammy’s mother’s (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. This passage was the portion of the book that struck me as the rawest, truest writing in the entire book:
It’s like a splinter, this feeling that she hates the baby so much that she would rather reach into its face and pull out its brains than take care of it for one more day. This hatred started days ago, and she thought she could hide it, control it by ignoring it and letting it fade on its own. But then it grew, attracting all the other evil feelings she has ever had about this house, this family, this country, even her own husband.
The End of East, page 141
That said, the tone of this novel is uneven at best, and the individual stories, snapshots if you will, are not connected well at all. Apart from some of the rather self-indulgent descriptions, I really felt that the single biggest failure of this novel though lies in the motivations (or lack thereof) of the daughter, Sammy. Her portions of the story are the weakest, with very little connection or explanation for her actions – actions I found inexplicable. As she is the primary narrator through which the story is told, this is a rather glaring weakness.
At first glance, Jones’ novel could not appear to be more different. It is the story of Lewis Aldridge, a young boy living in post-World War II England, and the devastating consequences for his entire family after a summer accident. It is a story of secrets and cruelty and hypocrisy and, ultimately love.
The story begins as a nineteen-year-old Lewis has just been released from jail, after spending a few years for an as-yet undisclosed crime. From there, the novel moves back in time to Lewis’ childhood, his father’s return from the war, and ultimately the accident that would take his mother’s life. We see Lewis’ life unravel as his father marries the young, flighty, and incredibly selfish Alicia. and start the cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax.
Entwined with Lewis’ story is the story of the Aldridge’s neighbours (and Lewis’ father’s boss), the Carmichaels. Both families have secrets, and emphasis is placed on image and appearances and social niceties at all costs. None of the characters are likable, with the possible exception of the Carmichael’s daughter, Kit, on whom the novel ultimately hinges, but all are compulsively readable, as the novel rips through a cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. (And that is not in any way reviewer-speak. It truly is a climax that lives up to the hype.)
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the book truly moves at a breakneck pace. Prior to writing this novel, Jones was a screenwriter, and her background is evident as the novel reads very much like a movie. In fact, there was a video trailer that was made for this book (it can be viewed here: http://www.rhgdigital2.co.uk/minisites/bookvideoawards/outcast.asp). While I generally don’t like trailers for books, I watched this trailer after reading the book and found it bang on to the descriptions in the novel. It was as though the novel was written at the outset with an eye to the possibility of a movie adaptation.
While I loved the flow of this book, I also found the writing to be well-executed and far more evocative than that of Lee’s novel. For example, this passage, following a Christmas time chat between Lewis’ father Gilbert, and Dicky Carmichael, his boss and neighbour, is a perfect example of the depth of understanding that Jones shows for the discrepency between exterior appearances and actions and private thoughts of her characters.
He teased out the conversation some more and wouldn’t go into detail about money, and Gilbert didn’t like him or the way he spoke or the way he stood there, but he took it, and he told himself how pleased he was, and gradually became pleased as the meeting drew to a close. It was a good deal and he was happy about it. He didn’t want to have to look at Dicky’s face any more and he wanted to take Lizzie home where she belonged and love her there. She was too good for any of them. She had her own way of looking at things. She was his and she was clever and lovely and he didn’t know what she saw in him, but he was grateful.
The Outcast, page 36
As I said, I found that there were similarities between the two books. Both are first novels from younger female novelists. Both books are stories of lonely, damaged people trying to find their way in the world. Both feature characters that are not inherently likable, and their sometimes unexplicable actions. However, where Jones excels at moving the story along, in drawing together multiple characters’ points-of-view and forming connections between jumps in time and narrator, Lee’s novel is substantially weaker in this respect leading to a disconnected, vignette feel to the nvoel. Where you get to the end of Jones’ novel and feel that you have read a story, Lee’s novel just, well, ends. All told, Jones’ novel is the better debut, and I have high hopes for her sophomore effort. Perhaps Lee will fare better in later novels, when her tone evens out, and there is less pressure to put forth a “daring and audacious first effort.”
The End of East, C+
The Outcast, A-