#9 – The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy

Please excuse me for some vagueness, and if I make some minor factual errors. Immediately after finishing The Jade Peony, I loaned it to my mother to read, and since she lives in Waterloo and I’m now back at home in Toronto, I’m unable to have it in front of me while I write this (and I don’t take notes while I read). So: I once wrote on this blog that I’m not interested in literature as social work, and I’m certainly not interested in an author behaving like my case worker, and that’s what a lot of The Jade Peony felt like to me. I wasn’t just supposed to be reading a decent novel about Chinese people, I was supposed to be absorbing a culture, learning about history, becoming a better person. Like broccoli, it wasn’t actually bad, but knowing it was supposed to be good for me made me not want to finish it.

But finish it I did.

It’s difficult to write in the voice of a child. Children are not simply minature adults, and they certainly aren’t stupid. There’s an extremely delicate balance that has to be maintained; children don’t see the same things we do, the way we do, and writing them as though they do is unconvincing at best. What details will they pick out as important? How will they interpret those details? Choy has an especially difficult task, because he chooses not one just child’s voice, but three. Additionally, a great many of his readers may not be Chinese, and the novel takes place in a time that those readers most likely don’t have any direct experience of. He has to include sufficient cultural and historical detail to situate the reader in a particular time and place, but he also has to balance it against what a child would pay attention to, how much they would understand, how they would understand it, and so on and so on. I find that there are moments when Choy is convincing, particularly with Jung-Sum and Jook-Liang, but most of the time he swerves around all over the place. Jook-Liang seems to miss far too much even though she’s quite young, and Jung-Sum sees far too much for his age. The scene in which Jung-Sum runs to the cinema with his friend, leaving behind his beloved turtle, is told with far too much telling detail and sadness for what a child his age could have mustered, and I don’t get the feeling that Choy is trying to present us with an unreliable adult narrator looking back at his past.

It wasn’t a bad novel, and I enjoyed the clash between Poh-Poh’s ideas of Old China and the new Canadian ways, but for the most part I found it unnecessarily sombre, and a little dull. I think it would have worked better as a collection of linked short stories. The chapters were almost episodic, and there didn’t seem to be any definite narrative arc, except perhaps in the second half of Sek-Lung’s section, which was so charged with meaning that it was as subtle as a freight train. To be honest I think this is the worst of the four Canada Reads books I’ve read so far. As much as I hated Generation X, at least it moved me in some way, made me react, even though that reaction was very strongly negative. It’s frankly taken all my will to gather enough interest to write even this little bit about The Jade Peony. My final reaction is that I just simple don’t care. It probably doesn’t help that my edition (earlier than the one pictured here, with a much different cover) was riddled with typos, huge gaps between words, and other production oddities that made it feel more like I was reading an un-corrected proof.

I’m sorry to be so brief, but I just can’t find anything I want to say about this novel. Typical CanLit, perhaps? The Jade Peony was my fourth selection for Canada Reads, and my tenth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Hair Hat, by Carrie Snyder.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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