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The Better Mother

by Jen Sookfong Lee

Postwar Vancouver was a gritty, glitzy city, home to a vibrant burlesque scene that catered mainly to loggers travelling through town. This largely forgotten era provides the setting for Jen Sookfong Lee’s second novel.

The novel opens in 1958, with eight-year-old Danny Lim feeling out of place in his own family. Danny meets Miss Val, better known as the Siamese Kitten, behind a Chinatown strip club. He’s never seen a woman so glamorous or self-assured, and he’s immediately fascinated. Following that prologue, the story jumps back and forth in time, alternately tracing Danny’s life and Miss Val’s childhood and rise on the burlesque circuit.

By 1982, AIDS has started to strangle Vancouver’s gay community. Danny is now a wedding photographer, and still strangely connected to Miss Val. He also hides his homosexuality from his conservative father and dowdy mother, people to whom he’s never been able to relate: “Danny had never told his parents what he wanted. And they had never asked.”

Lee offers a rare look into Vancouver’s seedy past, and succeeds in conveying a strong sense of place, but the book is marred, unfortunately, by overwriting. Instead of seeing what Lee describes, we see how she describes it. A strip club is depicted as “spewing irresistible magic”; the summer “heat has infected everything”; and in one scene, there is “anticipation quivering through the air.”

The Better Mother is a layered and imaginative novel, but it lacks a consistent narrative voice. Lee might have more effectively captured the reader with less exposition. The story alone, told more simply, would have been sufficient.