Book Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li, is set within the Chinese immigrant community of Maryland, USA. Jimmy and Johnny Han run the Duck House restaurant having inherited it from their late father, Bobby. He established the popular eatery, thereby making the family fortune. Long time employees, Nan and Ah-Jack, continue to work the long, punishing hours required despite their advancing years as they struggle to support their dependents. Nan’s seventeen year old son, Pat, has recently been expelled from school so now works a lowly job at the restaurant where his mother can keep an eye on him. Ah-Jack’s wife has cancer so he must cover her medical bills.

When the story opens Johnny is in Hong Kong and Jimmy is scheming to abandon the Duck House and open his own restaurant. To fund this he has turned to the wily Uncle Pang who is an associate of the Han family. It was Uncle Pang who helped Bobby set up his restaurant. Now he is offering a similar deal to the son, which would put Jimmy in debt to a man whose tentacles he would prefer to escape.

Pat is attracted to Annie, Johnny’s daughter. Both resent that the restaurant demands their parents’ time and attention and that now they are expected to work there. When Uncle Pang offers Pat a heap of money to carry out a small but illegal task, Pat takes Annie along to enjoy the spectacle. Things don’t go as they anticipated and the two young people are sucked into events that will horrify both them and their parents.

Sibling rivalry and a deep seated need to prove themselves drive Jimmy and Johnny to pursue their personal agendas. They still need the family money and this means involving their mother who now lives alone in her dusty mansion. The sons underestimate her strength and influence, reluctantly turning to each other, as they have always done, to cope with the challenges they end up bringing down on themselves.

Meanwhile Nan and Ah-Jack must finally deal with an attraction they have felt for each other since they first met. Pat needs his mother more than ever but she is distracted. Annie cannot fathom how to gain support from her father who has given up trying to interact with his truculent teenager. Wrapped up in their own concerns the parents do not notice as their children unravel.

This is a story of the resentments and ties of a demanding family that has mythologised its own success and expectations. It skilfully portrays the disconnect between generations who understand each other only in relation to themselves. Little is told of those who do not frequent the restaurant – it serves as a microcosm of the society and culture being portrayed.

The writing flows around a plot that offers a sticky, dark humour alongside the characters’ self inflicted difficulties. Although the supporting cast felt largely two-dimensional, serving to demonstrate key players’ continuing self-absorption, they added to the colour and shades of the depiction. I found it hard to like the protagonists but their situation is written with a degree of sympathy.

This was an interesting if not always satisfying read offering a window into the world of immigrants and their offspring. I enjoyed the insights offered of the inner workings of a busy restaurant. Mostly though it is a story of family that is universal.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One (an imprint of Pushkin Press).

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Book Review: Layover

“people’s identities are constructed like birds’ nests. That frantic and fragile. So what? Most of the time, they manage to hold together.”

Layover, by Lisa Zeidner, is the story of a woman going through a breakdown. Claire Newbold is a competent and successful salesperson travelling throughout America to meet with customers who buy medical equipment. She is married to Ken, a cardiathoracic surgeon in Ohio. Their much wanted and tried for young son died following a car accident. Claire is struggling to come to terms with this loss and the impact subsequent events have had on her marriage.

Claire is well used to moving from hotel to hotel via flights and rental cars. She likes to swim in hotel pools when they are quiet. On a business trip she swims for too long and misses her connection. With nothing urgent to return home for, such as collecting a child from daycare, she simply lies down to rest.

Thus begins a period when Claire steps outside of her routine. Something in her has shifted granting her permission to exist groundless and answerable only to herself. She sleeps, she swims, she eats from room service. Not wishing to be traceable by her concerned husband she starts to stay in hotels she has regularly frequented without paying, gaining illicit entry to unused rooms. She continues to keep appointments until this is thwarted by others’ apparent concern for her behaviour.

At one hotel she meets a young man at the small swimming pool and considers why she has remained faithful to Ken.

The reader sees the world through Claire’s eyes as she moves through her days. She has detached herself from expectations, become an unknown travelling through who will not be met again. Thus she can claim to be whatever she chooses at that moment and can say what she thinks. Her honesty appears shocking at times demonstrating how censored everyday actions and conversation can be.

Claire wishes to better understand relationships, to find out more about the husbands of women she encounters, the lovers of the men. There is a voyeuristic element to her stepping inside the lives of almost strangers. However disconnected she feels there is a need to be perceived.

Whilst relishing the anonymity and freedom it grants her, Claire recognises that this period is a coda from which she must eventually extricate herself. When the time comes to return to her life she encounters more difficulties than she had foreseen, not least because Ken has become frustrated by his errant wife’s avoidance and left it to her to contact him. Claire is worrying about potential health issues she has self-diagnosed and believes could be serious.

There is an honest fragility to the sometimes sharp but always authentic prose with its undercurrent of grief and subtle need. Through each of the characters the reader observes how precarious even the most outwardly comfortable of lives can be, each individual’s need for validation. This is a well structured and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One, and imprint of Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: Only Killers and Thieves

“Listen to me now. I’m going to tell you what will happen if we were to let that man live. He will hate us. Not only you and I personally, but all white men.”

“Remember, he will breed also. He will produce a dozen heirs, all with this hatred in their blood.”

“It is laughable, the ignorance of the educated classes, sitting in their parlours and their clubs. The blacks don’t want to integrate. They want us to leave. So either we domesticate them or we kill them”

Only Killers and Thieves, by Paul Howarth, is set on the frontier lands of Central Queensland, Australia, near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the local area has been claimed by a white man, John Sullivan, whose grandfather first cleared it for the raising of cattle. Sullivan has expanded, taking over settlement after settlement, intent on driving out the indigenous population. To this end he calls on the Native Police Force, employed by the Queensland government, to disperse those who remain. The local force is led by Inspector Noone whose methods are pitiless. He is widely feared.

The McBride family live on a neighbouring settlement. When the story opens the region is suffering a lengthy drought and the teenage McBride boys, Billy and Tommy, are out hunting for food. Against their father’s orders they stray onto Sullivan territory where they observe Noone and his men with captive natives. They are discovered and warned away.

Unlike the cattle kept by Sullivan, which have somehow remained healthy, the McBride livestock are dying. When those that remain are rounded up for selling they do not raise what is needed to provide for the coming year. Tommy watches as his father clashes with Sullivan, who he once worked for. Although the boys are required to help – their father can no longer afford to employ other men – they are given no explanation for the animosity with their neighbour.

All this is set aside when Tommy and Billy arrive home late one afternoon to discover that their parents have been killed. With their little sister grievously injured they turn to Sullivan for help. A native is suspected so Noone is called in. Sullivan coaches the boys in how they should testify thereby making them complicit in the ensuing retribution. Leaving their sister in the care of Sullivan’s young wife they ride out beyond the land claimed by settlers.

This is a vivid evocation of a bloody period in Australian history. It is also a story of family and the challenges faced by pioneers. With their parents dead the teenage boys are left in a precarious situation. Sullivan and Noone offer them a type of protection but it costs the boys dear. Billy looks up to the wealthy Sullivan as a success his father could never hope to emulate. Tommy sees things differently.

Rarely have I read such a powerful account of the racial oppression and abuse perpetrated by those at the forefront of white man’s empire building. It is vivid and disturbing yet never overplayed for effect. The reader is not spared the graphic detail yet the account remains nuanced and balanced. The inhumanity is sickening, and based on fact.

Although a work of historical fiction the story is written as an adventure and a thriller. The tension throughout makes it a compelling read. Each character is rounded and believable, earning their place in the narrative and adding to the readers depth of understanding. Even the most horrifying of actions are portrayed with explanations, the skewed personal justifications for brutal acts of terrorism.

An impressive debut and a timely exploration of the potential impact of dehumanising an entire people. This is an engaging and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, One.