“Do you remember, Big Sister, all those good times? In Cousin Chan’s abandoned house right in the middle of our neighbourhood, a dozen or so girls lying together, cooking together, working the fields, laughing and gissipping the entire day.”
The excerpt from this letter, from Fong Mei in March 1919, in her report about her new life in Gold Mountain, captures something of the flavour of Sky Lee’s classic novel. However, it depicts a scene which exists only in that character’s memory. The act of sharing it and the fuel for its recollection are more important than the details therein.
Readers looking for a linear and orderly narrative will not want to seat themselves at this café table.
Sky Lee begins Disappearing Moon Café with a voice even further in the past, from 1892, but the chorus of voices makes the novel buzz as loudly as one imagines that house of girls in the letter. Some characters repeat more frequently, so the reader is not chronically dizzy, only occasionally disoriented.
Nonetheless, while each chapter skips across time, the novel is unified by a focus on theme and experience, rather than chronological recountings.
Troubles of young brides or mothers-in-law, the odd vulgar bachelor thrown in for good measure: family connections (and broken ties, unrealized links) are at the heart of this novel. And, as in Dennis Bock’s Olympia, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, there are questions about identity and its relationship to storytelling.
“Maybe this is a chinese-in-Canada trait, a part of the great wall of silence and invisibility we have built around us. I have a misgiving that the telling of our history is forbidden. I have violated a secret code. There is power in silence, as this is the way we have always maintained strict control against the more disturbing aspects in our human nature. But what about speaking out for a change, despite its unpredictable impact!”
This question of violating a secret code could be more literally interpreted here. As in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day, there are family secrets lurking.
“Oh Mother, Mother, tell me the truth! What did you feel when you brought your own mother to her knees? If you had to do it over again, would you? Could you have saved your sister from your mother? Or your mother from your sister?”
In another novel, such a quote would be a spoiler for sure, but in Sky Lee’s novel, there are so many voices (and so many more women are afforded voices in this story than male, although there are key male voices to0) that readers can’t suss out who was on their knees and who could have been saved.
Ultimately, however, the story is not only about a specific family, but about a broader sense of familiar connection.
“Do you mean that individuals must gather their identity from all the generations that touch them – past and future, no matter how slightly? Do you mean that an individual is not an individual at all, but a series of individuals – some of whom come before her, some after her? Do you mean that their story isn’t a story of several generations, but of one individual thinking collectively?”
And, as such, this story is about all readers, for who better to appreciate the sense of stories upon stories, stories within stories, and stories about stories.