Sunday, December 5, 2010

The year of finding memory by Judy Fong Bates

Judy Fong Bates came to Canada with her mother in 1955, reuniting with her father who had lived in Canada on and off since 1914. Her father ran a hand laundry business in small-town Ontario.
In 2006, after both her parents were dead, Fong Bates returned to China with 12 other relatives and more than thirty pieces of luggage in what she thought would be a kind of tourist trip to see her parents ancestral villages and to learn more about her family history. She was also interested in learning more about her parents and why they were so unhappy in their marriage. What led these two very different people to marry in the first place. What WAS their story?
What Judy Fong Bates discovered offered a very different picture of her parents lives. She was able to fill in many blanks and to uncover some shocking truths about her mother.

I wanted to enjoy this memoir but I felt in some ways it didn't meet up with my expectations.

First off, I found the number of family characters simply overwhelming. It was hard to keep track of who belonged to whom despite the list of family at the beginning of the novel. Perhaps a family tree would have been beneficial. After finishing the book I felt that I didn't know any of the authors family, including herself and her husband, any better than when I started. The lone exception was the mother to some degree. None of Fong-Bates family are portrayed with any depth, including her husband whom she seems to adore. I also didn't know she had two daughters until well into the book.

Fong-Bates mother married at age 16 to a handsome but "very no-good man" who had a serious addiction to opium and was abusive. She left him and went to live with her brother. Eventually in 1930, her mother was hired by her father to teach in his village of Ning Kai Lee. After many years, and a very convoluted life in which circumstances worked against her, her mother married her father who was much older and was living most of the time in Canada working as a launderer. They soon had a daughter, Judy. When she and her mother joined her father in Canada in 1955, life was difficult and her parents fought a great deal of the time. Judy was often caught in the middle. This made her wonder why they had married in the first place and whether they had ever loved one another.Thus the trips to China.

Through meeting her many relatives in China Fong-Bates was able to piece together her mother's life and why she entered into this marriage. Unfortunately, we know little of her father's story, which also would have been interesting since he came to Canada in 1914 and was, at the end of his life, a broken man who eventually committed suicide.

The story that emerged was one of thwarted dreams and of two people who were victims of circumstances and events well beyond their control. There is great tragedy in both lives. The sense of tragedy comes out in The year of finding memory but at times gets lost in the telling. This is because the revelations are mixed in with a sort of touristy account of visits to various relevant areas of China, intermingled with conversations of relatives, Fong-Bates life in Canada, and her mother's life. It made the storyline of what is primarily her mother's life very difficult to follow. In fact, I found at times I had to go back a reread portions of the story to help me fit in the new information as it was revealed. Still, there are some parts of the book that are particularly heart-rending; the account of Fong-Bates father's suicide is one such portion.

Another difficulty is the author assuming that readers will know their early 20th century history of China. To this end, a prologue perhaps outlining this period would have been most helpful for setting the background. As an example, I am sure there will be some readers asking who are the Kuomintang?

The map at the front of the book was bland and too small to be useful. The book could have been significantly enhanced by larger photos of family members as well as pictures of her parents ancestral villages, the homes, rice fields and even some photos of family members they encountered on their two trips to China. After all, we got a verbal account of this part of the whole discovery process so why not enhance it visually?

All in all, this was an average book done in the form of storytelling that I felt could have been truly exceptional if done in a different manner. I still plan to read her "Midnight at the Dragon Cafe".

Book Details:

The year of finding memory by Judy Fong Bates
Random House Canada 2010

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