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The End of East
by Jen Sookfong Lee

Knopf Canada
243 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted April 21, 2007

Between China--the Far East--and the west coast of Canada there is a symbolic divide: the end of east. For Chinese men who crossed the Pacific Ocean in the early part of the 20th Century, Vancouver represented a land of opportunity, yes, but it also carried with it a burden of loneliness, racism, and backbreaking labour, as well as a lost connection to their homes, families and culture. Due to harsh measures like the Head Tax and Exclusion Act, they were caught in between their old world and a new one that seemed to be not yet ready for them

This geographic paradox turned literary device shapes not only the title of 30-year-old Vancouverite Jen Sookfong Lee's debut novel, The End of East , but also its theme and story. The divide between east and west runs through this richly layered book on several levels, from the contrast between the old ways of China and the New World opportunities in Canada, to the poverty and decay of East Vancouver compared with the relative wealth of the west side of the city.

The End of East charts three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family, the Chans. First, Seid Quan who leaves his small rural village in China at 18 and forges a new life in Vancouver through an unwavering work ethic, although he suffers separation from his family for much of his life as a result. His son Pon Man, who meets his father for the first time when he steps off a boat in Vancouver at 15 years of age, never quite finds his place in this new world. Finally, there is Samantha, Pon Man's youngest of five daughters, who narrates the present-day stream of the book.

As the novel opens, Samantha returns to Vancouver after six years away to help prepare for her sister's wedding. She is home to stay, having left a faltering relationship and an unfinished university degree back in Montreal. Now the only unmarried daughter, it is her responsibility to care for her aging mother, Siu Sang, a cranky old woman who never seems to have a nice word for anyone.

Depressed and uncertain about her future, Samantha turns to the past for answers. Cleaning out her grandfather's room a decade after his death, she discovers his head tax certificate and other documents, which initiate a personal journey into her family's history.

Lee handles the transitions between the various time streams of the novel with admirable effortlessness. The first switch occurs as Samantha walks in Stanley Park, and her imagination summons her grandfather's ghost to walk beside her--only then she can't seem to shake his presence:

            "I do not turn, knowing that once I look directly at him, his gaze will hold me until he is ready to let me go, until I've done exactly what he wants and he rests, allowing me to do the same.
            I'm not ready for him, not ready to understand what he needs. I would rather rush ahead, let my body do the thinking so that I am only following the urges of my own flesh.
            I stare ahead, feel a gust at my back.
            That old man smell , I think. Not again . I turn to look."

Turn the page, and Seid Quan is arriving in Vancouver at 18, alone and frightened, unsure of what his future holds. However, by working hard, avoiding drinking or gambling, and keeping his head down during the occasional riot when white men get drunk and break windows in Chinatown, he is able to save enough money to travel back to China a few years later to marry a woman from his home village. He meets his new wife on their wedding day, and then spends only six weeks getting to know her before returning to Canada, where he will be alone again for several years.

Lee moves back and forth between Samantha's story in the present and the history of first her grandfather and then her father until we come to fully understand all the forces that have shaped the Chan family in Vancouver.

If this book is not completely successful, it is because the contemporary plot is simply not as compelling as the historical sections, mainly because of Samantha's depression and self-destructive actions. There is plenty of sadness and difficulty in Seid Quan's and Pon Man's stories, too, but Lee handles them differently, with a more sympathetic touch. Samantha's muddled uncertainty about life, though realistically portrayed, become dreary. In the end, when a sort of resolution occurs between Samantha and her mother, it feels somewhat forced.

Nonetheless, there is much to admire here. For a first-time novelist, Jen Lee shows off a very confident style, investing The End of East with rich imagery and well-wrought characters, and deftly handling the complexities of the various storylines.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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