THIS PLACE CALLED ABSENCE
In Kwa's debut novel—already published in Canada—four narrators tell two stories, one of a contemporary Chinese-Canadian psychologist mourning the death of her father, another of two Chinese prostitutes in early 20th-century Singapore. As the novel opens in 1994, Wu Lan has just begun a year's leave of absence from the Vancouver, B.C., clinic where she sees patients: her father committed suicide at home in Singapore, and Wu Lan has had a breakdown after returning from the funeral. To distract herself, she begins researching the sex trade in Singapore, and Kwa introduces three other narrators: Lee Ah Choi, whose parents sell her into prostitution for three sacks of rice; Chow Chat Mui, who flees her father's sexual abuse only to find herself tricked into prostitution; and Mahmee, Wu Lan's mother, who grieves over her husband's death and her daughter's flight from her native city. As the novel progresses, Wu Lan slowly makes peace with her memories of her father, her roots and the recent loss of her girlfriend, while Ah Choi and Chat Mui fall in love and try to escape the usual fate of Chinese prostitutes (or ah ku), death by opium. The two stories are narrated at entirely different paces; the ah kus lives are telescoped into short passages while Wu Lan's account lingers over domestic details. Kwa does a lovely job of intertwining these two stories; her research is thorough, and her writing is often vivid. But it can also be clumsy, as when Wu Lan resorts to psychological explication, and Kwa introduces many more themes than she develops. She takes care, however, to show the complexities of ah ku life circa 1900, and even if the novel is not gripping, it sheds light on a little-explored world. (Mar.)
Forecast:There are few Asian/lesbian-themed novels, and this worthy addition to the subgenre should find a small and devoted readership.
Release date: 04/01/2000