From a master of family dynamics comes this vivid tale of two misfits who find each other while stumbling toward their own true identities. In 1958, eight-year-old Danny Lim has been sent to buy cigarettes for his father, when he realizes that he has lost the money. Frantic, he rushes through Vancouver's Chinatown and behind a nightclub, where he sees Miss Val, a long-time burlesque dancer. Danny is enraptured with her sequined garters and silk robe, and Val, touched by his fascination, gives him a pack of cigarettes and her silk belt. Years later, Danny spends his days working as a wedding photographer and his nights cruising Stanley Park, far away from the home where his parents and sister live. He realizes that the key to understanding himself and his family lies in his connection to Miss Val, and he is determined to find her. Before she became the Siamese Kitten, a major player on the North American circuit, Miss Val was Valerie Nealy, a feisty girl growing up in a rundown house beside the Fraser River. But to find the stardom she thought she wanted, she had to make a series of seemingly irrevocable decisions. Set mostly during an unseasonably hot summer in Vancouver in 1982 when HIV/AIDS was spreading rapidly, The Better Mother brims with undeniable tragedy, but resounds with the power of friendship, change and truth. It will cement Jen Sookfong Lee's reputation as one of this country's finest young novelists.
About the author
Jen Sookfong Lee was born and raised on Vancouver's East Side, and she now lives with her son in North Burnaby. Her books include The Conjoined, nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award and a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; The Better Mother, a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award; The End of East; Gentlemen of the Shade; Chinese New Year and The Animals of Chinese New Year. Jen was a columnist for CBC Radio One's The Next Chapter for many years. She teaches at The Writer's Studio Online with Simon Fraser University, edits fiction for Wolsak & Wynn and co-hosts the literary podcast Can't Lit.
Excerpt: The Better Mother (by (author) Jen Sookfong Lee)
Danny is eight years old and skinny, a boy who fingers his kneecaps every night, wondering if the sharp bones will pierce through his skin if he gets any taller. It’s summertime, and his black hair––thick and straight and glued in place with three generous dollops of Brylcreem–– shines in the sunlight as he bobs and darts through late afternoon crowds on Pender Street. A white woman in a greyish-pink straw hat (the colour Danny imagines is called dusty rose) stops to stare, her green eyes lingering over his cut-off jean shorts. He tugs at his almost-outgrown, striped T-shirt, but soon recovers; it’s not he who should feel out of place, but this knobbly-faced woman. She is, he thinks, the kind of person his father complains about, the kind who comes down to Chinatown on weekends and holidays to gawk at the mysterious dried seahorses in the herbalist’s window, taking in the stacks of Chinese newspapers on the street corners, the lined and tanned men leaning against the buildings, their fingernails yellow and split from cigarettes and weekday work.
Danny grins sweetly at this woman until she tentatively smiles back. She isn’t to blame for being one of the many tourists who troop through the neighbourhood and hog all the parking spots big enough to fit his parents’ boat of a car. Satisfied, he continues weaving between people until he spies his father’s favourite café. Standing at the counter inside, he can see, behind glass, the rows and rows of apple tarts, their flaky tops sprinkled with sugar. But he knows that looking isn’t any use. Money, it seems, is always tight and the family’s curio shop always on the verge of closing. Besides, he had lunch at home with his mother and little sister just four hours ago: a bowl of bland but filling rice, that leafy green he can never remember the name of, a steamed pork patty dotted with the pickled snow cabbage he hates.
He waves at Mr. Gin behind the counter. “One pack of Sweet Caps, please.”
“Sure thing, Danny. How’s your dad?”
Danny shrugs. “Same as always.”
Mr. Gin nods. “I bet all these tourists are making him grumpy, eh? All right then, here you go.” He hands over the pack of cigarettes.
Danny digs in his pocket for the coins his father gave him, but it’s empty. He checks his back pockets––nothing. Bending down, he searches his socks and the insides of his shoes––still nothing. He stands up and stares at Mr. Gin.
“I must have lost the money.”
“Don’t worry, Danny. The cigarettes will be here. You can come back later.”
“No. Dad will be so mad! He always says that I have holes in my head.”
“You’ll have to tell him the truth. Here, why don’t I give you this apple tart to make you feel a little better.”
But Danny is gone, blindly rushing down Pender Street, spooking the live chickens on display in their cages. They flap their wings, peck at their own toes in anger. Maybe if he runs fast enough, he’ll escape Chinatown altogether and never have to face his father again. Or watch his mother wipe away stray rice grains with her thin, mud-coloured sleeves. Danny makes a tight right turn into an alley. The trail of a woman’s voice shouting in Chinese follows him: “Slow down, little boy! You’ll knock down one of my customers. You’ll get it then, I tell you!”
He slips into the shadows, hears the click and clack of mah-jong tiles from the third-floor windows echoing off the tall buildings. The air is damp, as if all the rain that fell during the spring has been trapped in the cracks between bricks and uncovered garbage cans, and sharpens the smell of barbecued pork and overripe fruit that stings the insides of his nostrils. He slows to a walk, keeping one hand on the exterior wall of the building on his left so he can trace the roughness with his fingertips, feel the mortar crumbling as he passes. Sometimes he thinks that he could walk all these back streets with his eyes closed, using the texture of the bricks and rhythm of his footsteps to find his way to the shop—or somewhere else far, far away.
The alleys are the only places left where it is almost always silent. Sunlight still filters through the power lines, but it is a very particular light, striped with darkness, sharply defined by the shadows it tries to burn away. Through the half-gloom, he sees a woman leaning against a wall, a line of smoke with a familiar smell rising from her mouth and floating into the air.
He creeps toward her. With every step, more and more of her comes into focus. The lines around her legs begin to sharpen. She is wearing fishnet stockings and red T-strap heels. Her hair is jet black like his, but hers seems to absorb light, not reflect it, and her head is like a storm cloud, all heavy and moody and maybe dangerous. A green robe hangs around her, hastily tied and partially covering her black satin onepiece. She crosses her left leg over her right, and a row of green sequins around the tops of her thighs catches a wayward beam of light.
When she turns to look at him his stomach lurches. Instantly, he is aware of the toothpaste stains on his shirt, his mismatched socks, even the tiny hole over the baby toe on his right shoe. She is everything beautiful that he has ever imagined, more beautiful than Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth or even the stars in the night sky. This woman stands before him, breathing and shifting, more real than any actress or far-off constellation, as real as his own mother, but so, so much more dazzling. She would never pin up her hair without looking in a mirror or wear her husband’s old corduroys rolled up to her knees because they’re still too good to throw away. For a second, he sees his mother in that same green and black outfit, but he realizes she would still be the mother he has always known, just squeezed into clothes she has no business wearing.
A familiar surge of disappointment rolls through his chest. He imagines running down the alley and resting his cheek against the smooth satin barely covering this woman’s body; he is sure her muscles won’t give, that there will be no extra rolls padding her belly. But he stands motionless, hoping that he will somehow melt into the grime and slick of the alley and that this perfect creature––so powdered, so fleshy––will not see him and the telltale signs of his unsophisticated life. She squints through the shifting light, her face hard and suspicious, like she is bracing herself for something unpleasant but predictable: perhaps a stumbling, drunk man, or a woman from the nearby church, maybe even the same one who came into his father’s shop two days earlier clutching a fistful of pamphlets and wearing plain brown shoes. When Danny feels her black-lined eyes travelling over his flushed, hastily washed face, he holds his breath, wondering if she will ignore him, yell at him, or, worst of all, pat him on the head like a puppy and send him on his way.
A pigeon waddles across the alley, stopping to consider a soggy piece of bread.
The beautiful, satiny woman suddenly smiles. Her face softens and she looks, for a moment, like she has just spotted her child in a crowd. Danny lets the air out of his chest and puts a brown hand on his forehead. Somehow, he feels swollen and light at the same time.
“Do you need something, little boy? Are you lost?” Her voice is like gravel crunching under the wheels of a speeding car. Danny feels sorry for her and wonders if the cracking in her voice is from sobbing into a pillow in the dark early morning, the way he once saw a light-haired actress weep in a sad, romantic movie.
“Are those Sweet Caps?” He wants to kick himself for uttering such an ordinary thing to this woman, who is surely a temperamental creature, one who might bristle at questions deemed too mundane for her bejewelled ears. But his words have already fallen like heavy bricks.
“My smokes? You’re far too young to be thinking of putting one of these in your mouth.” She smiles again, runs a painted fingernail across her red lips.
“My dad needs some, but I’ve lost the money. He’ll yell at me unless . . .”
“Sweetheart, if you need some smokes to keep your dad from dressing you down, by all means.” She reaches into a pocket on her robe and pulls out a full pack. “Here, take them.”
“Thank you,” Danny whispers, darting forward to take the cigarettes from her white, unlined hand. “Miss . . . “”
“You can call me Miss Val. Although everyone around here knows me as the Siamese Kitten. Funny, isn’t it? Pretending to be Oriental in the middle of Chinatown.” “Sometimes I think I would rather be someone else,” Danny ventures, tucking the pack of cigarettes securely into the waistband of his shorts.
“Honey, we all wish we were something we ’re not. That club back there,” Miss Val gestures toward the grey door behind her, “is full of men pretending all sorts of things.”
She laughs loudly, and it sounds like hundreds of bells, the kind Danny once heard being rung for dinner in the fancy house his mother cleans once a week. Because of her raspy voice, he had expected her to chuckle or half growl and he laughs with her in surprise. “I guess that’s where I come in. Easier for them to forget their lives when I’m up onstage, shaking my can in their sad little faces.”
Danny steps forward again, his hand outstretched and reaching for her shiny green robe, but Miss Val doesn’t notice. She blows a smoke ring and watches it dissipate into the air above their heads.
“There was a time I could have been a real, bona fide actress. The studios were interested, let me tell you. But that was almost ten years ago now, and I guess I can’t complain. Better dancing and taking off my clothes every night than breaking my back raising five kids.” She pats her hip with her free hand and looks down at the ground. A puddle shimmers with the tremor of cars and trucks passing at either end of the alley.
He is close enough to smell her perfume––woody and underground, like freshly turned soil and cedar in the rain. He wants to breathe it in deeply until he falls asleep. The belt on her robe is dangling from her waist and he pinches the end between his index finger and thumb. So soft and smooth. Slippery like water, if water were cloth. What if he wrapped the fabric around his wrist and twisted it up his arm? What would that feel like? Like a whisper on the ear? The breeze from a seagull flying overhead?
Miss Val looks down at his bent head, the concentration lining his small face. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“It’s Danny,” he says, without looking up.
“Danny, that’s real silk satin. Some of the new girls, they go cheap on the costumes, but not me. Here.” Miss Val reaches around and pulls the belt from her robe. “Take this. You seem to love it even more than I do.” She threads the long, narrow piece of silk through the loops on his shorts, passing it through twice and then knotting it in a symmetrical little bow at his belly, firmly over the pack of cigarettes in his waistband.
Briefly, Danny feels her fingers in his hair, riffling the strands until goosebumps rise on the back of his neck. “You remind me of a little boy I knew once,” she says. She straightens and laughs; her cigarette is now no more than a stub in her fingers. “Of course, you’re much more special. I wouldn’t give away bits of my costume to just anyone, you know.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Val. I can keep this for real?”
“Yes, honey, for real. It’s been a long time since any kid looked at me with those big saucer eyes, so that’s your reward.”
Miss Val cocks her head at him and smiles, the sharp lines of her jaw and neck relaxing into a soft blur of skin that reminds him of the cheeks on his mother’s face. She throws her spent cigarette into a puddle. “Look at that. I’m getting lost in memories, like an old woman.” She runs a finger down Danny’s left ear. “You should run off and deliver those smokes to your dad before he goes looking for you. Don’t want to be caught with a used-up stripper in an alley, do you?”
Danny doesn’t quite understand what Miss Val means, but nods anyway. He knows that these few minutes have changed everything about him, and that he will forever be a different Danny––maybe even a glamorous, salty, fearless one. If his father weren’t waiting and likely pacing in the shop’s front window, Danny would stay and ask Miss Val how she became this lovely, silk-covered being. Maybe she had to break free from something as boring and everyday as Chinatown with its fish tanks and piles of cloth slippers. Impulsively, he grasps Miss Val’s hand with both of his and kisses it, the way he has seen men who are in love with beautiful women do in the movies.
“Are you trying to get fresh with me?” she asks, her eyebrows knitted together in mock disapproval.
Danny shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to tell her that they could be the best of friends if they had the time, or that he would like to go home with her and create his own little nest in a pile of her clothes where she could tell him stories about dancing and parties. He owes her so much, for the cigarettes and the belt and this glimpse into a life that must be exciting and always bewitching. But he has taken far too long already.
Danny says in his best grown-up voice, “We’ll meet again. You’ve captured my heart forever.” He shoots her what he hopes is a debonair look before running away, one hand clasped over his belly, the silk bow a ball in his small fist. Her laughter bounces off the buildings and multiplies, until he is sure he is being chased by church bells, ringing and ringing for souls both lost and found.
FINALIST 2012 – City of Vancouver Book Award
“A complex and layered second novel. . . . An ambitious and engaging read with a wholly original premise and characters you have likely yet to meet in Canadian fiction. . . . The Better Mother has more twists and turns than any back cover promotional copy could possibly describe, and its pacing is taut and clips along at a breathless speed that will keep you reading and wondering what’s coming next. . . . Straight-ahead page-turning brilliance.”
—Zoe Whittall, National Post
“Virtually oozing with sensuous and romantic longing. . . . A beautiful and tragic representation of vanity, disillusionment and hope. . . . With remarkable facility, Lee breathes life into two characters who lead lives of relative anonymity.”
—Winnipeg Free Press
“Lee is a fine storyteller, conjuring the histories of her amiable characters and a Vancouver that remains today in the collective memory of its long-time residents. More than a nostalgic montage of times and places, The Better Mother is an evocative portrait of two lonely hearts and their synchronized longings.”
—The Georgia Straight
“A poignant story of loss, truth and the power of friendship.”
“The Better Mother brilliantly invites us to see the forgotten lives that have populated our cities––their vulnerabilities, their luminous and indomitable energy.”
—David Chariandy, author of Soucouyant
“The Better Mother is a pitch-perfect portrait of the city I grew up in. But perhaps more importantly it is a skillful observation of the parts of us that often refuse to be seen. With great tenderness and poetry, Lee pulls aside the masks we wear to hide our raw emotions even while we yearn for the compassion of others.”
—Billie Livingston, author of Greedy Little Eyes
Other titles by Jen Sookfong Lee
Good Mom on Paper
Writers on Creativity and Motherhood
The Shadow List
The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees
Chinese New Year
A Celebration for Everyone
Whatever Gets You Through
Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault
The Animals of Chinese New Year / 中国农历新年动物生肖
The Animals of Chinese New Year Read-Along
Gentlemen of the Shade
My Own Private Idaho