At first glance, I didn’t think I would find much to connect me to this book. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s, featuring young female protagonists, I wondered what there would be to connect me to this book.
Sure, the characters were living in times when queerness was not accepted. But under very different circumstances to how I experienced this. Not only legally, but socially and culturally.
Lily Hu is growing up against a background of deportations, communism and homophobia. So she risks a lot when she finally, with a little help from Kathleen, get to the Telegraph Club. A club fronted by male impersonator Tommy Andrews.
Drawing comparisons; seeing myself
“She couldn’t put into words why she had gathered these photos together, but she could feel it in her bones: a hot and restless urge to look—and, by looking, to know.”
That sentence made me sit up and take more notice. I got it then. That was my experience too. Too afraid to do anything, myself and Lily gathered photos that really spoke to us. And that is how we knew.
Malinda Lo’s book captures the confusion and exploration of growing up queer. The author uses the setting and the time perfectly to explore hidden and suppressed feelings and it makes sense. The authentic use of the Chinese language (and I can commend the audio book for including this) made everything feel so real.
Some writing problems
Lo’s writing leaves nothing for the reader’s imagination. Everything is described in detail. What could have been said in three words was described in thirty. This meant that the novel, at times, really dragged.
Although the structure of the book keeps it moving forward (split into five parts), the overwriting felt annoying at times. The use of timelines was useful and placed the book into a wider historical context which was interesting, especially given some of the research also placed at the back of the novel.
If you are looking for a sapphic novel set in an America that not New York, then I would say this is a good starting point. Be prepared to take some time, however, as the novel requires a lot of reading.
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