Release Date: May 3, 2016
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Age Group: Young Adult
Source: ARC provided by publisher for review consideration
A bittersweet coming-of-age debut novel set in the Korean community in Toronto in the 1980s.
This haunting coming-of-age story, told through the eyes of a rebellious young girl, vividly captures the struggles of families caught between two cultures in the 1980s. Family secrets, a lost sister, forbidden loves, domestic assaults—Mary discovers as she grows up that life is much more complicated than she had ever imagined. Her secret passion for her English teacher is filled with problems and with the arrival of a promising Korean suitor, Joon-Ho, events escalate in ways that she could never have imagined, catching the entire family in a web of deceit and violence.
Tell Me More: It’s rarely easy, writing about immigrant stories. There’s a distance that one needs to have more often than not, to reflect upon the story you’re reading, and not draw the obvious parallels to your own. In Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, we’re introduced to a Korean immigrant family in Canada trying to survive in the late 1980s, and we see them through their daughter’s eyes. It was both jarring and comforting to meet Mary, as the similarities between our lives took shape.
I’ll admit that I struggled with reading this novel at first, even as it came closest to representing my own lived experience. Perhaps–I realized close to the end–that was exactly the reason why I would pick it up, read a few pages, and then shake my head, feeling too full to take in Mary’s story. Her voice is stark, measured in its descriptions of life as it unfolded in that small convenience store on Queen Street West in 1988. She looks back on her childhood with that familiar defiance we all feel:
Although for once I don’t think she intended to make me feel bad, I felt guilty that my dad saw himself as limited in the same country that my mother was sure would lead me to a great and brilliant life. Unlike my dad, I was never going to accept my fate.
Choi takes us through Mary’s teenage years, navigating through family deaths, an assault, and that awkward, quick slide into first love. Throughout the story, Mary is alternately tentative and confident, learning to assert herself even as she questions her distance from the culture of her parents.
As much as I could identify with Mary, I found that I couldn’t quite lose myself in the novel. This was definitely a case of writing style blues, as I found Choi’s structure to lean a little too heavily on exposition, making some of the scenes feel stilted. We get lots of longer paragraphs where Mary or another character explains background information that might have been dropped during scenes with more action. There are also copious page breaks that cut into the development of some scenes that I would have loved to see in more detail.
That said, the tone and voice may be a reflection of the protagonist, and the way that her own voice develops through the years. We are privy to Mary’s inner battles, the moments where she bites her tongue, and the days that don’t pass as quickly as she would like. We see her grow in ways she would never have expected, and discover parts of herself that she doesn’t quite like or want to face. The moments that made me uncomfortable did so partly because I could see myself so easily in Mary, as I’m sure many immigrant kids will.
Originally from Chung-Ju, South Korea, Ann Y.K. Choi immigrated to Canada in 1975. She attended the University of Toronto where she studied English, Sociology, and Education. Ann has also graduated from the Humber School for Writers, the Creative Writing Certificate Program at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at National University in San Diego, California. In 2012, she received the Marina Nemat Award.