In The Better Mother, her second novel, Jen Sookfong Lee is once again a brilliant anatomist of the stifling expectations of families. It's 1982 and, having fled home as a teenager, 32-year-old Danny Lim returns at the request of his overburdened sister. Trapped at the dinner table, he fears that his carefully constructed identity will be obliterated by his parents' disappointment.
A mass of contradictions, Danny earns his living as a wedding photographer but lacks the confidence to exhibit his non-commercial work - studies of female strippers in street clothes, traces of stage makeup clinging to their skin. At night he cruises Stanley Park, braving assault or arrest despite the first harbingers of AIDS, but can't face coming out to his parents. Underlying everything in his life is Danny's obsession with Miss Val, The Siamese Kitten, a burlesque dancer he met in an alleyway when he was 8 and has idealized ever since.
Lonely and punishingly shy, Danny projects his desire for glamour and beauty onto this woman, whom he sees as the antithesis of his mother Betty - glittering and free, not dowdy and submerged by the obligations of family life. Lee's imagery, both visceral and delicate, is always thrilling in its precision: the puff of air as Betty flips a mattress, the "burnt-skin odour of arousal" in a strip club, the sponginess of Vancouver's rain-soaked ground - these powerful images sometimes stand in for plot or depth of character.
That the people whose lives intertwine in The Better Mother remain dream-like and mysterious may not be coincidental - like Danny, they almost all lead double lives. As well, the book is more focused on theme and setting - 1980s Vancouver, the 1940s and '50s burlesque circuit - than plot; its many symbolic dream sequences and the level of coincidence with which characters meet and re-encounter one another are too stylized to be taken literally.
Danny and Val meet again at a wedding in 1982 and become friends. Over time, she tells him her life story, which is cinematic. In the late 1940s, Val and her younger sister Joan are desperate to escape the drab poverty of their family home by the Fraser River. They head for Vancouver to work as dancers, but with movies beginning to eclipse live shows, the only available jobs are in burlesque. Instead, Val supports them both as a waitress in a Chinatown diner.
When Joan marries unexpectedly, Val is alone; after a failed love affair with her boss, burlesque is her last option. Here's the unforgettable description of her first moment on stage: "The tidal wave of fear pouring out of her skin was so palpable she could smell it, like the odour of horses' sweat after they have been whipped or shod." But she's a natural, and intoxicated by her effect on the audience, she shines.
The novel moves between Danny's story and Val's, a technique that challenges author and reader - inevitably one narrative becomes less compelling, as Danny's does here. Val's story, though clichéd, has more propulsion and is simply more picturesque. Key scenes in Danny's life - the death of his ex-lover Frank, for example - don't have the weight one might expect, and he remains a somewhat indistinct character. The denouement to his story, hinted at but kept off-stage, is anticlimactic.
Lee is an undeniably talented writer. If The Better Mother is a less clearly defined book than her first, The End of East, it is fascinating in its exploration of the ways people trapped in their own skins project their needs onto others. There are many kinds of hunger and Lee is interested in all of them. She might well be referring to herself when she says of Danny and his wedding photos, "…what [he]ended up loving was the shiny veneer of glamour and happiness, and the human ache and smell and longing that always seethed underneath."
Diana Fitzgerald Bryden is the author of No Place Strange. She is working on her second novel.