Asian American Literature Fans Megareview for July 21, 2012

In this post, reviews for Kim Moritsugu’s The Glenwood Treasure (Dundurn, 2003); Kim Moritsugu’s The Restoration of Emily (Dundurn, 2006); Laurence Yep’s Mia (American Girl, 2008); Laurence Yep’s Bravo, Mia! (American Girl, 2008); Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef (1994, The New Press); Romesh Gunesekera’s The Sandless (1998, The New Press).

A Review of Kim Moritsugu’s The Glenwood Treasure (Dundurn, 2003) and The Restoration of Emily (Dundurn, 2006).

Kim Moritsugu’s The Glenwood Treasure is an interesting study in the mystery genre. The title describes a legendary bounty apparently hidden by a man named Jeremiah Brown sometime earlier in the century and located somewhere in a picturesque Toronto area neighborhood. Our narrator and protagonist is Blithe Morrison who returns home in the wake of marital rupture. Blithe is uninterested in socializing and she has little worry about job prospects considering she comes from a wealthy family background. She is hired by a neighbor (named Molly) to research the history of various sites in the area, which reignites her long interest in solving the mystery of the Glenwood treasure. The plot starts to thicken when a local boy, Patrick, begins to show some affection for her. Much of Blithe’s life around town is indirectly influenced by the legacy of her brother Noel, who though presenting himself as a paragon of the elite, is nevertheless a kind of a huckster. Indeed, Noel had singlehandedly corrupted Blithe’s rather generic boyfriend Gerald at his bachelor party, encouraging him to engage in orgiastic debauchery. Needless to say, Blithe has little regard or affection for her older brother and is quite content that Noel is away in Europe. When Blithe begins to advance in her search to solve the Glenwood treasure, it becomes increasingly evident that many people around her are living double lives. What is absolutely fascinating about Moritsugu’s work is that she gives her pristine Toronto community a kind of noirish edge, where the elite occasionally rub elbows with the working class. Though the novel takes a while to get off the ground, once it does, you’ll be entranced. A must read for anyone who enjoys the mystery and thriller genre. Your patience will be rewarded, as Moritsugu’s deftly created characters come to life and achieve greater texture through the intricate plotting and engaging narration.

The Restoration of Emily is entirely different in genre and tone than the slightly noirish The Glenwood Treasure. Emily Harada, our narrator and heroine, is perhaps what Blithe could become if things eventually went bad with Patrick and their storybook romance did not turn out the way we might hope. Emily is a Japanese Canadian architect, a divorcee with one teenage son named Jesse; she’s really an unforgettable character. She doesn’t care to be in relationships, swears like a sailor and is particularly caustic when it comes to criticizing the people around her. The title refers to Emily’s work as a restorer of homes, but she’s not some sort of purist who believes that homes should look only one way. Nevertheless, the title has a more metaphorical meaning related to Emily’s life. Indeed, the novel seems to be something of an exploration of Emily’s own desire for renewal. The beginning of the narrative sees her visit the doctor for a shoulder ailment; she discovers that she has a frozen shoulder and must keep her should socket mobile so that the condition does not worsen. This condition figuratively calls attention to the ways in which Emily must consider her own sort of flexibility and malleability as she contemplates upon the importance of various people in her life over the course of the narrative: her friendship to an aging neighbor named Vera, a romantic relationship to a younger man named Nils, the growing distance between herself and her son Jesse, among a host of other dilemmas. Moritsugu’s triumph with this work is in the construction of this indelible character rather than having composed a tightly plotted novel; she’s a no-nonsense, modern, and independent woman who is not afraid to live alone and not afraid to speak her mind.

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A Review of Laurence Yep’s Mia (American Girl, 2008); Bravo, Mia! (American Girl, 2008).

Though I’m clearly not part of the intended target audience for the American Girls series, these books are quite useful in thinking about how feminist depictions are directed toward younger audiences.

Laurence Yep’s Mia presents a departure from many of the Chinese ethnic themes of his work or the fantasy fictions that he has written. The titular Mia St. Clair narrates her story that focuses on her various struggles and achievements in the sport of figure skating. She comes from a working class background and is already talented at hockey (like her brothers), but decides that figure skating will allow her to excel in a trajectory independent of her siblings. Mia is relatively unsure about her figure skating talent, but a new coach and former Olympic figure skater helps bring her out of her shell and pushes her to unveil a figure skating solo performance at an upcoming special event. Mia practices, but has trouble mastering a couple of moves, including a complicated axel-double toe loop jump combination. Her rival, Vanessa, also creates more tension, especially as she comes from a wealthier background and seems particularly entitled to her status as the queen bee of the figure skating rink. Vanessa holds enough power that it seems as though her father could find a way to boot Mia’s new and beloved coach from the rink itself. In some ways, Mia feels pressure to perform a perfect solo routine precisely because her coach’s job might depend upon it. With all of these different issues in mind, Mia eventually overcomes her fears and debuts her solo with flying colors (in contrast to Vanessa who suffers an embarrassing pratfall). The text is itself accompanied by very high quality pictorial representations, though I had trouble figuring out who the actual illustrators were. The texts also come with an advice column published at the end about young girls and their specific problems, many involving sports. It is quite clear that the “Mia” series helps young girls explore their athletic interests and gain confidence in the development of their various activities.

Yep continues the “Mia” series in Bravo, Mia! In this particular narrative, Mia faces an uphill battle getting to the Regionals skating competition. First, she does not know if she will have enough money to purchase a costume that will accompany her routine. Once she is able to come up with the funds and the means to attend Regionals, she must also contend with the fact that her competitors are both her best friend, Anya Sorokowski, as well as her mortal enemy, Vanessa (we recall her from the previous book). As Mia soon learns, the Regionals competition is a bigger battlefield and Vanessa, though the star of their local Lucerne skating rink, is hardly a big draw in the more competitive field that she competes against. In an early practice, Mia finds herself having to shore up her psyche against the mental mindgames of one skating star named Paige. Eventually finding her balance, center, and competitive toughness, Mia goes on to compete brilliantly and earn a fourth place result; Anya will place second, while Vanessa will end up placing fifth. By the conclusion of the narrative, there is somewhat of détente between Vanessa and Mia. As with the previous Mia title, there is a sort of “letters to the editor” section that concludes the novel, with young girls asking for advice concerning their athletic interests.

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A Review of Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef (1994, The New Press); Romesh Gunesekera’s The Sandless (1998, The New Press).

Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Told in the first person through the perspective of a chef named Triton, the novel explores the rather idyllic life of one elite man, Mr. Salgado, prior to the civil unrest in Sri Lanka in the seventies and eighties. Much of the novel revolves around the growing attachment that Triton develops with one of Mr. Salgado’s girlfriends, a charismatic and charming woman named Miss Nili. Once Nili moves in with Mr. Salgado, Triton’s life becomes very busy, as Nili attracts a large following of people, many who are simply interested in how long the whirlwind romance between Mr. Salgado and Nili will last. Mr. Salgado, for his part, is also a marine biologist and thus, the title refers to his studies, much of which become a way for Gunesekera to ruminate upon the future of Sri Lanka as an island nation torn apart by violent conflict. There is something of a scientific allegory at work, as Mr. Salgado’s studies of erosion and reef degradation seem to mimic or to parallel the oncoming political turmoil. I previously reviewed Gunesekera’s The Match and I have to admit, there was something about the narrative styling here that I thought was considerably stronger. Triton is an absolutely intriguing character, one whose keen observational style anchors the reader firmly and sympathetically. Like Jaspreet Singh’s Chef and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, the figure of the chef, the one who must attend to the tastes not only of himself but to others, becomes a perfect storytelling entity. He luxuriates in delicate aromas, exquisite flavors, and unique dishes, and in all of these novels, his occupation is perfectly suited to a postcolonial critique of nation building in times of war and violence.

Romesh Gunesekera’s The Sandglass is a work that explores the complicated histories that surround two families: the Ducals and the Vatunases. The story is narrated from the perspective of man named Chip who is good friends with Prins Ducal as well as Prins’s mother Pearl. The death of Pearl and the impending birth of a family member bring what remaining family members back together briefly. The novel is something of an oral history. We do not get much information about Chip himself, which is probably my biggest critique of the novel: who is this narrator and what is Chip’s family background. Instead, the focus extends to the ways in which the Ducal family eventually loses its entrepreneurial footing in Sri Lanka and is overtaken by the Vatunases family. The ruin of the Ducal family is in part what leads to their appearance and settlement in London. Their family is rife with misfortune, but Naomi, Pearl’s granddaughter, is pregnant, and this pregnancy signals perhaps some hope for the future. The problem is, of course, that the Ducal family line is still in question because the name cannot be carried onward. Prins, for his part, seems to have engaged a romantic dalliance with Lola, who hails from the rival family. It is perhaps this background that leaves their relationship in turmoil, another failed relationship in a family riddled with problems. One interesting aspect of the novel is that much of it is told through direct dialogue and it makes me wonder about whether or not Gunesekera will go on to experiment with that form. There is a meandering and recursive quality to this work that will leave those seeking a more linear plotline disappointed, but Chip is a highly reflective narrator and there are certain moments of his observation that ground the work in an observational poetics that make this book still a joy to read.

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