Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Zoë S. Roy
ISBN: 978-1-77133-605-5, 240pp, May 24, 2019, $22.95
I first read Zoë S. Roy’s fourth novel, Spinster Kang, in an early draft about five years ago when Roy and I were trading chapters. I’m pleased that the book is now published. Though I enjoyed reading an early draft, the book has developed into a perfectly crafted, moving story about migration and culture, transformation and love. The book opens as Kang, a relatively new Toronto migrant, is leaving work after a long shift selling coffee and donuts. Kang is hard working and eager to learn about her new country. In China Kang was stigmatised as a spinster for remaining unmarried into her thirties after being traumatised by her sister Jian’s rape which has caused her to develop a mistrust of men. This is further exacerbated by Jian’s ongoing abuse at the hands of the husband she later marries. Kang’s narrative arc takes her on a journey of self-discovery as she begins to meet and interact with people from a range of cultures, and as she also begins to uncover secrets about her own family back home.
Kang’s new landlord is Tania Shapirovsky, who turns out to have more of a connection with Kang than either of them know. This becomes clear when Tania hires Kang to proofread Tania’s memoir. This story-within-the-story about Tania’s youth in Russia fascinates Kang to the point where Kang, who studies hard as she trains to become a teacher, decides to take a trip to Moscow with her new boyfriend, Tania’s nephew Brian. Brian’s growing odd behaviour, his own family tragedy, and Kang’s relationship to Tania’s story keep the story moving forward quickly.
Kang is a well-created, likeable character, who draws the reader in with her naïve and open countenance and her rapid narrative arc. Throughout the novel, the writing is richly evocative and particularly astute in its depiction of place, bringing in a migrants sense of wonder at the distinctive qualities of Toronto:
She shivered in the still cold April breeze. The land seemed half awake; the fresh green of springtime was beginning to appear. Geese waddled on the newly sprouted grass, robins hopped on the roadside, and the sunshine kissed the awakening land. It was so beautiful, she thought, and then she felt a twinge of loneliness. With whom could she share the joy of these new surroundings? (30)
Roy combines a broad range philosophical, political, psychological and historical threads, tying them smoothly to Kang’s development in a way that is both appealing and easy to read. The book explores Freudian theory, the Chinese cultural revolution which Kang was born in the middle of and which Roy covers particularly well, the relationship between China and the former Soviet Union, particular in the transition from Stalin’s rule in the late 1950s to the Khrushchev government, the impact of dictatorships, of social mores, the ongoing and multi-generational impact of trauma, mental illness, migration and cross-cultural relationships. Kang’s deep desire to integrate into her adopted country, her exploration of Canadian customs and the differences between those and her own country’s norms, as well as her quiet openness to learn new things is beautifully written and carefully depicted through Kang’s point of view, from the very opening of the book:
Coffee cups and donuts danced before her eyes in the soft glow of the streetlight, their circular shapes overlapping and swirling with the snowflakes. The biting wind whipped her face and slowed her steps, and her sneakers slid on the snow. It was early March, but it was colder in Toronto than in Beijing. (1)
Kang experiences racism and sexism in Canada, which she deals with stoically, and which Roy handles subtly, but it’s clear, from the SARs outbreak that cause people to avoid Kang, to the rejection she receives when she shuns the clumsy advances of a young man named Shang, that part of Kang’s journey is to understand and unpack some of the external sociological forces that hold her back from her own self-realisation. Kang’s journey is as much an inner one as an outer one, and although other characters like Brian and Tania are carefully created and appealing, Spinster Kang very much remains Kang’s story. The novel is rich with sensual details, from the delicious Chinese, Russian and Canadian foods that are prepared at holiday gatherings and recollected through the story to the experiences that Kang has as she falls in love, faces her past, and travels. Spinster Kang is a warm-hearted, delightful story that will engage readers of all interests.