Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Every once in a while, a debut novel brings us a fresh look at what it means to be Canadian. Ann Choi's journey into the world of a young immigrant girl caught between her family's Korean values and breaking free to live her Canadian dream adds a colourful tile to our nation's literary mosaic.
Yu-Rhee, Mary to her friends, toils away in her family's convenience store, and dreams of being a writer. The story is set in the 1980s and revolves around the family's store on Queen Street West, then a favourite haunt for prostitutes and pimps. Condoms and cigarettes are the big sellers in the store, and routinely, some desperate young man robs it. Nonetheless, the business is the pride of Yu-Rhee's mother—proof of the family's success in Canada. And Yu-Rhee and her brother, Josh, like good Korean teenagers, work hard to support their mother's dreams.
As Yu-Rhee approaches the end of high school, she is conflicted by her desire to be a writer, and her sense of duty to her mother to follow a safer and more lucrative profession. Additionally, the pressure has already begun for her to marry a Korean man.
When her mother takes Yu-Rhee to Seoul for her grandmother's funeral, she meets Joon-Ho, an eligible young man studying to be an engineer. Although attracted to Joon-Ho, she is put off by his traditional macho mindset. A year later, he turns up in Toronto to do his master's degree in engineering, and begins to court Yu-Rhee, with the encouragement of her parents. Yu-Rhee plays along to a point, even losing her virginity to him. But her real love interest is her former high school English teacher Will Allen, himself an aspiring writer. Now a first-year university student, she works hard at gaining Will's attention and affection. When Yu-Rhee breaks off her relationship with Joon-Ho for Will, he doggedly tries to win her back. Things take a turn for the worse when Joon-Ho's jealousy pushes him over the edge.
What delighted me about the novel was that it lifted a veil away from a part of the Canadian family that up to now I knew very little about, despite having several Korean-Canadian friends. Perhaps, it was the distinctly female perspective that offered this newness—Korean society being very marked by gender differences.
Ann Choi has demonstrated remarkable craftsmanship in her debut novel. The plot moves along smoothly with subtle suspense. Choi draws her readers into Yu Rhee's world, deftly portraying the young girl's torn emotions between family obligations and Canadian opportunities. Toward the end, the story does falters a bit in introducing a few melodramatic episodes. But overall, it is a very solid work of fiction, and Ann Choi is certainly an author who is making her mark in Canadian literature.
Kay's Lucky Coin Variety is published by Simon & Schuster.