Wayson Choy, All That Matters

Good heavens, what a book: I'd been expecting to admire and enjoy All That Matters, Wayson Choy's 2004 followup to his smash 1995 novel The Jade Peony, but I really fell for it. I've always had a habit of being persuaded by whatever I've been reading most recently (best novel ever! smartest theoretician ever! sexiest issue of People ever!), so in some ways I should recognize that response behind some of my appreciation for Choy's novel - but it's also just that good.

The novel follows the classic coming-of-age plot, with a young boy (Kiam-Kim) arriving in a new home (Canada, from China) with assorted family challenges; the historic period covered is 1926-1947, with some details about the '29 economic crisis as well as post-WW2 social reconstruction. The Chen family is a complicated one, genetically as well as emotionally, and Choy does a wonderful job of illuminating the many ways in which these complications feed into each other: silence and volubility, adherence to tradition, yearning for the new, siblings whose parentages are variously step-, and so on.

Set in Vancouver's Chinatown, mostly in the 1930s, All That Matters emphasizes racial segregation and mingling, both formally sanctioned and personally pursued. Chinese kids playing with Irish kids; Italian teenagers fighting with Chinese teenagers; Chinese women working in "white" offices or warehouses; Chinese and Japanese people impossible for "white" Canadians to distinguish from each other: Choy makes these things real, if a little bit cartoonish at times, but even then the cartoonishness is itself true to a situation where you don't know the first thing about people not like you.

I found the characters difficult to see through at times, especially the quieter female characters, but I'm assuming that's part of Choy's aesthetic. This was especially the case for the three young women linked around Kiam-Kim (Jenny Chung, Meiyung Lim, and Stepmother); maybe Choy's emphasizing the wilful inscrutability of these characters as their strengths and/or weaknesses, maybe I'm not attuned enough to his writing, maybe he's not as good with female characters as with male. Hard to say, and I'll leave the speculation to others. I recognize that some reviewers felt let down by Choy's prose and his linear narrative (unlike that of The Jade Peony), but honestly, the aesthetic worked really well for me.

So in sum, I was utterly absorbed by All That Matters. It was a mandatory read so I could support a student project, but I quickly found myself choosing to bury myself in this novel. Great stuff, even if I'm coming to it fashionably late, seven years after its initial publication....


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