“Jimmy was starting to stand when a resigned, almost amused look passed over Ah-Jack’s face. Like he was tired of waiting for disaster to strike. Before Jimmy could stop him, Ah-Jack took one of his hands away from the plate to grab the two serving spoons. His left wrist did not even make an attempt to hold the weight of the plate on its own. Jimmy’s outstretched hand caught air.”
This crackling, tension-filled moment between an ageing waiter desperately trying to cling onto the only thing he knows, and a young restaurant manager, Jimmy Han – or little boss, as the staff often refer to him – with a growing desire for escape, is perhaps the most powerful moment of the opening scenes from Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant.
Li’s debut novel is by and large a family drama, where ‘family’ is used as a loose and malleable term, referring to the Han family – owners of the Beijing Duck House in Maryland – as well as the loyal and long-standing staff of the restaurant, friends and enemies, players in the drama that unfolds on several narrative threads throughout the book. After a mysterious fire burns the Duck House to the ground, a cast of connected characters have to re-examine where their loyalties and their priorities lie; re-evaluate what they thought to be true their whole lives, and burn their own bridges to bring about change.
The book follows three main storylines that push and pull towards each other throughout the novel: that of Jimmy and his pursuit of independence from his family and opening his own restaurant; that of Nan, a middle-aged manager of the Duck House who has spent most of her life working there, and her romantic relationship with Ah-Jack, an older long-standing employee; and Pat, Nan’s teenage son, whose first steps into adulthood threaten to take him in the wrong direction, despite Nan’s desperate attempts to rescue him. Much of the story is overshadowed by the looming presence of Uncle Pang, a mysterious character with a powerful hold on the Han family.
Li’s style is gripping from the start, drawing the reader in with evocative writing that makes the restaurant and the surrounding world come alive – the smell of sweat, painful feet and the choking, delicious aromas of Chinese food mingle throughout the novel – with brisk language that occasionally inserts beautiful descriptions but is more focused on telling the story than dwelling on the details. Coupled with an atmosphere of exhaustion and each character’s desperate fight for existence and a better, albeit undefined future that they seem only partially to believe in, Number One Chinese Restaurant also manages to deal with immigration and self-reinvention, creating one’s own culture while trying to remain loyal to the old one.
While peppered with gentle, powerful imagery, such as feet being gently washed or freshly prepared food being thrown into the bin, where the book really thrives is when giving its supporting characters dedicated space. As the matriarch, Feng Fei’s musings give perhaps the clearest and most fascinating insight into the Han family’s hierarchies: “In China, while Johnny had corralled the neighbourhood children into doing his gentle bidding, Jimmy bit and scratched whoever tried to play with him. She’d had to spank him raw, but part of her had enjoyed having a child who would fight back.”
There are a few elements in the book that perhaps take themselves a touch too seriously, such as Uncle Pang’s mafia-like demeanour, which all too often tips into clichés (including a mysterious missing finger). On several occasions, Li’s characters also seem to compulsively fill the space between sentences with physical actions, creating an atmosphere that threatens to tip into melodrama. During a tense conversation between Jimmy and his mother, Feng Fei “started wringing out her towel, squeezing drops of dirty moisture onto her slippered feet,” while “the blue-green veins in her hands bulged from the strength of her grip” and then “she threw her rag on the floor.”
Overall, however, Li’s novel is pleasant and captivating, perhaps more than anything because truly human relationships and desires take the foreground. The book beautifully depicts an all too relatable situation: being caught in a moment, unable to break out, and wishing for something bigger, better, always waiting for the singularity that will change our course. The characters seem unrelentingly to believe in a logic of actions drawing necessary reactions, and ultimately, fate. “The transcript of the world had recorded Jimmy’s apology,” Li writes. “This would have to be enough.”
Words by Vera Sugar.
For more information on Lillian Li, visit Pushkin Press.
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