The Better Mother
By Jen Sookfong Lee. Knopf Canada, 350 pp, hardcover
Danny Lim was eight years old when he first met Miss Val, the burlesque star known as the Siamese Kitten, in an alley of Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1958. Glamorous, vivacious, mesmerizing—“She was the mother he could never have. And he loved her for it.”
In The Better Mother, Vancouver author Jen Sookfong Lee follows these seemingly disparate individuals, looping through their lives from 1938 to 1982, and knits a story about families and their silences, motherhood, friendship, love, and the unforgotten wishes of childhood.
Twenty-four years after their brief encounter, Danny, now a wedding photographer, is still starstruck by Miss Val’s fleeting kindness and paradigmatic allure. Semicloseted, he left home at 18 and continues to struggle with coming out to his estranged parents. “Living in a world of his own making and escaping from a house in which he never belonged,” Lee writes, “are his two successes.”
Like her acclaimed debut novel, The End of East, this new book sifts through Vancouver’s previous eras and spurs us to remember the vitality of some of the city’s faded neighbourhoods. The plot’s catalyzing moment arrives when kismet reintroduces Val to Danny, and here the tale of her life unfolds, along with scenes of their current circumstances.
Val ran away from her parents’ house and arrived in Vancouver seeking the limelight. A soured love affair, trailed by an unexpected business opportunity, transformed her into the celebrated Siamese Kitten, but the path to success wasn’t without prolonged maternal sacrifice.
Danny’s reticence to acknowledge his sexuality led to the demise of his relationship with Frank. The residual heartache of that failed romance shadowed him for years, but when Frank succumbs to AIDS, Danny emerges to nurse him through his final days.
In each other, Danny and Val find a kindred spirit, and together they begin to reconcile the people they were with who they have become.
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.