The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee
Another hardcover picked up at the book sale (I’m starting to feel repetitive…). This one was actually a library book—gently-used, as they say. The dust jacket was in good condition.
I was pretty excited to read this book because it’s not only set in Vancouver, it’s set on the east side.
If you’re not familiar, the east side of the City of Vancouver is generally referred to as “East Van.” The west side, otoh, is just referred to as the west side. This is because there’s already West Vancouver—a different city, to the north(west) of Vancouver. There is also the West End, which is the neighborhood near Stanley Park. (If you think that’s confusing, to the east of West Vancouver are not one, but two, North Vancouvers.)
Bonus Fun Fact: most people think of the east and west sides being divided by Main Street. But this is incorrect! The east/west divide is actually Ontario Street. This leaves a two-block strip of east-side addresses for Realtors to tout as “west of Main!” This has cachet because the west is the more affluent side of the city.
And my blathering is less of a digression than you might think when you consider the title…
Anyhow, I could very much visualize the areas she described, but I did start to wonder how much of that was my own pre-existing knowledge. Was there too much of a reliance on street names as a shorthand? I’m not sure. If you’re not from Vancouver and you read it, let me know what you think.
The End of East is Jen Sookfong Lee’s first novel. It’s about three generations of the Chan family, but more broadly about the difficulties Chinese immigrants to Canada faced due to racist immigration laws.
Seid Quan immigrates to Vancouver in the early 1900s, at a time when Chinese immigrants were subject to the head tax. He settles in the Downtown Eastside, in Chinatown, and ends up taking over ownership of a barbershop. His village finances his immigration and his purchase of the shop and he works for many years to repay them. He is only able to return home a few times (for both financial and immigration law reasons). After many years alone in Canada, he is able to bring his son and his wife over. Eventually, his son marries and has five daughters, the first generation to be born in Canada. The story is narrated by the youngest, Samantha (Sammy).
Sammy’s parents and grandparents are nuanced characters, and her telling of their stories is unsentimental yet moving. I really liked the non-linear structure of the story. Instead of moving steadily forward in time we jump forward and back, learning different pieces of the story, until they all fit together in the end like a puzzle. Loved that. (And I think Lee’s ability to do this well in a first novel bodes well for her future books.)
The weak part of the book for me was Sammy. She’s just sort of… there. First you think, well, maybe she’s just there to tell her family’s story, a Scheherazade, if you will. Ok, I could get behind that. Except, not exactly. Because there is this sketchy backstory that doesn’t really go anywhere. And also this weird side-plot that doesn’t really go anywhere. And even these things would have been ok if they had been developed to that level but associated with another character, e.g. one of her sisters. The problem for me was that she’s a first-person narrator.
But this is a quibble. I liked this book very much, and I look forward to reading Lee’s second novel when it comes out.