“You sit here,” Mrs. Cheung says as they reach the kitchen. She taps a chrome chair with yellow vinyl upholstery that matches the Formica tabletop. The chicken is flopped into the sink. “I clean outside in a minute.” She sits opposite Westen, hands folded in front of her, embroidered orange maple leaves on her sweater vest, each surrounded by small beveled rhinestones that could be rain or sunlight breaking through a fall canopy. “Your auntie ask me talk to you. Why you not a happy boy?”
“I’m happy,” Westen says, but he knows there is no conviction in it.
Mrs. Cheung places her hands flat on the table and stands. “Wait,” she says, exiting the kitchen. When she returns she is holding a pad of paper and a large red book with gold Chinese lettering. She asks Westen a series of questions: his birth date, the time he was born, how to spell his first name. With each query she consults the book and writes on the pad of paper. Her work is certain and officious, as if she is interviewing a job applicant, her lips thinned in tight concentration. Westen watches her blunt fingers press the pencil, embedding dense Chinese characters into the paper. Mrs. Cheung makes a single nod with each notation. In a quiet moment when she is double-checking her work Westen watches a drop of water collect at the lip of the kitchen faucet until it relents to gravity. “Maybe I should go find Uncle Cane,” he says when the drop falls.
Mrs. Cheung looks up from her pad. “They drinking. Don’t worry. I take you home.”
Westen knows he will not see his uncle for the rest of the day.
“You will visit China,” Mrs. Cheung says, pointing to her math. “But I think you will be an unhappy boy and an unhappy man until then.”
Westen cannot comprehend the forecast, but he makes an attempt. “China will make me happy?”
“No,” she says emphatically. “Nothing make anyone happy. But I going to help.” She reaches into her pocket and retrieves four items: a thin red ribbon, matches, a candle, and a palm-sized box covered in worn blue velvet. She ties the ribbon around the box, leaving a bow the size and shape of a small butterfly. “My mother give me before I come to U.S. I give you now.”
There is something about this gesture that comforts Westen as he watches Mrs. Cheung light the candle and drip dense wax onto the knot of the bow. “My mother do this too. She tell me I’m unhappy girl after my father die.” The pair sit quietly looking at this new red-winged creation sitting atop the blue box. “Now you open in China only at right moment,” Mrs. Cheung continues. “Maybe you be happy. Before that, no good. You tell someone, no good. This only your box.”
“When will this happen?”
“Wait for your father like I wait for Mr. Cheung,” she says. “He come back. You put away until then. Be a good boy and remember to listen to your auntie. She love you.”
Westen feels a flush of heat and hope at the prospect of his father’s return, but he wonders just how long he is going to have to wait. Picking up Mrs. Cheung’s box, he carefully feels its weight. “Is it magic?” he asks.
“No,” Mrs. Cheung says firmly. “It hope.”
Brian Leung was born and raised in San Diego County, a somewhat unlikely location given that his mother was born in Battleground, Washington and his father escaped from China in 1949. For many years Brian lived in Los Angeles, where he studied the city’s kinetic diversity and found his literary voice…
Forthcoming in June 2007 is his novel, Lost Men, which amplifies the best qualities of his short fiction and about which Publisher’s Weekly writes “Leung gingerly reacquaints an estranged father and son who travel through China in this sagacious and lyrical debut novel.”
The novel lives up to the publicity. It is not a work of the same order as those listed in my Best Reads of 2007 but it is very good, good enough to put up as a Best Read of 2008 but for its humanity as much as for its literary qualities. Leung is not yet up to Zadie Smith, for example, on that score, but it is a noteworthy first novel. What is brilliant about it is the way it captures so much about how identity is formed, how we can be at war with ourselves and those we care about most, how our happiness is so contingent, how complex our relationships are, whoever we might be, but especially if we find ourselves hybrids, as Westen Chan, and one imagines Brian Leung, is. He is “Westen” by the way after the German title of All Quiet on the Western Front; the pun in the name is obvious enough.
The other thing that dawns gradually is that this is a gay novel, but a mature gay novel in which sexuality is just one of the components of the character’s life, and not always the key one.
I do recommend this novel.
You may read more of Brian Leung here.
Remember when — was it thirty years ago? — people were saying the novel is dead? Clearly not, even if there is considerable competition from other ways of telling stories. I still very much enjoy the rewards of good prose fiction, especially in the form of a real book you can use anywhere, and even swat flies with, as Reading? It’s already covered points out in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. I enjoy the fact I can savour a novel over days or even weeks, unlike a play or movie or TV show.
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