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Migration Songs

by Anna Quon

The title of Anna Quon’s debut novel doesn’t accurately convey its spirit. One might expect a slow, pastoral narrative with lots of nature metaphors, but this is nothing of the sort. Though the novel is measured, it doesn’t feel laboured. Instead, it’s an engaging tale, peppered with memorable scenes and lovingly drawn characters.

At 30, Joan has no friends or ambitions. Unemployed, she spends too much time in bed, sucking on cough drops. And yet, for all her shortcomings, Joan is likable. Her voice is honest and intelligent, and she doesn’t try to justify her inadequacies.

The first third of the novel details how Joan came to be. On a trip to London, England, to meet a prospective husband, Joan’s mother, a Chinese-Canadian whose parents escaped Communist China, instead meets David, an Englishman with an affinity for Maoist politics. Despite their misgivings, the two are married, and their daughter comes along shortly thereafter.

Quon writes with a great deal of humour, and she spins a good yarn. Memorable scenes include an awkward fifth birthday party in which Joan’s father warmly eulogizes Chairman Mao as her offended grandparents look on, and the Chinese wedding Joan’s mother is forced to endure.

Migration Songs sags a little in the middle, but only in comparison to the strength of its more focused beginning and end. The novel’s chain of emotional causality is occasionally murky. For example, the reader is given to understand that Joan’s parents are very much in love when they elope, so it seems inconsistent that, hardly a few days later, one disagreement would result in deep resentment. But these, after all, are minor issues in a story that feels big.