Dandelion – Jamie Chai Yun Liew

Note: Because I “read” the audio version of Dandelion, I do not have a reference to the novel to get all names right, locations, etc.

Lily and Bea are sisters growing up in Sparwood, British Columbia with their parents, who immigrated to Canada from Brunei before they were born. They are ethnically Chinese, which mattered in Brunei where it meant they could not be citizens and opportunities were limited. Their mother, Swee, was born in Malaysia and has citizenship there, but their father was stateless and longed for a place with opportunity where he could achieve citizenship.

Lily, the older daughter is the narrator and she drops one shoe as the novel opens: She is pregnant. Her mother left the family without a trace when she was a child. They never saw nor heard from her again. And then, she transports us to Sparwood, a mining town where her father landed work as a welder in the mines. It is the 1980s and they have a house in a nice, solidly middle class neighborhood. The Asian community is small and close knit. The children are bullied. The adults not accepted by the white community. Their father’s sister and her husband live nearby. Their mother is homesick and unhappy. Their Chinese dialect spoken in Brunei is unintelligible to Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, but since Brunei was a British protectorate, Lily’s parents speak English. Swee also speaks Mandarin that she learned in school from fellow students.

Along the way, the family casually observes some traditions, At one point, they attend a red egg and ginger party held to welcome a new baby who has reached 100 days of life; cooking and eating food native to their homes. The girls learn some of the Chinese dialect unknown to most of the others in town who did not come from Brunei. They befriend a Chinese man who seeks and fails to get refugee status. He goes into hiding. Swee, increasingly disenchanted with her home, feeling, perhaps, misunderstood or unsupported by her husband walks out when Lily is eleven. Their aunt steps in and helps to raise the girls. Eventually, they leave Sparwood, move to Calgary but, as adults, land in Eastern Canada.

Dandelion is a universal story about motherhood, the early weeks of having a newborn that can overwhelm so many, parents and about the experiences of children, sisters, friends, loss, making sense of one’s life, particularly when one has been through trauma. It is overlayed with a mosaic of what it means to be Asian in a largely white diaspora; how Lily chooses to relate to her ancestry and culture that is worn on her face and her skin color, yet seems out of place in her adult world, her job and marriage to her husband who’s family emigrated from Ukraine. She still connects to her childhood friend, sees her sister, her father, her aunt, but she is educated, has a profession, is Canadian and her mother is a distant memory. Bea loathes their mother. Lily is conflicted. Their father and aunt have disappeared Swee like she is a ghost. Throughout, Lily’s world view is influenced and shaped by her ethnicity and culture, but she would say she knows very little about it. And, with the birth of her child, she desperately wants her mother.

This is such a rich, beautifully written story with some twists and turns that cannot be shared without spoiling things. The characters are beautifully drawn. The relationships are “how did she get into my brain” realistic, touching on feelings and motivations for actions that make sense to the individual and that we, as readers, comprehend because of Liew’s gift. The settings are vivid. I will read everything Liew writes. I could see her as a favorite author.

This audio book was so well narrated. I appreciated hearing the pronunciation of Chinese words and names where relevant. The characters were portrayed well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s