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September 16, 2016
The Word On The Street Toronto will be hosting the authors and editors of all five finalists for the 2016 Toronto Book Awards at this year’s festival on Sunday, September 25, at Harbourfront Centre. As a special treat, we’ll be posting reviews of the nominated books in the weeks leading up to the festival from a panel of writers, reviewers, and editors working in Toronto today.
Our next review is of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y.K. Choi, reviewed by Kimberley Griffiths. Kimberley, the fourth of five 2016 Toronto Book Awards reviewers, is an Editorial Literary Assistant and Office Administrator in Toronto. Ann Y.K Choi will be reading at The Word On the Street at Harbourfront Centre on September 25, from 11:30am – 12:00pm at the Toronto Book Awards Tent, at 12:45pm at the Vibrant Voices of Ontario Tent, and again at 2:00pm on the Wordshop Marquee. This year’s Toronto Book Awards will be awarded on October 11, 2016.
Mary recognizes the prostitute that comes in to her family’s convenience store by the scar on her arm. Momentarily transported back to her first day of the fourth grade, she recalls meeting Delia, an elusive almost-friend who abruptly left school and disappeared. Now a teenager, Mary is curious about this new version of Delia, with her red miniskirt and fishnets, and hopes that she can find a way to help her. From its opening pages, Ann Y.K. Choi’s novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, commands the reader’s interest even as it subtly explores the nature of scars—how they are sustained and how they continue to make themselves felt, how they shape not only the person that you become and but also your relationships with others.
The novel captures Mary’s teenage years, most of which are spent begrudgingly working at her family’s convenience store on Queen West. Since emigrating from Korea, Mary’s parents have poured their hopes and dreams into their store, slowly building their business and attempting to ensure their success in Canada. But to Mary, the store is more like a prison than a ticket to freedom. She resents her parents’ strict rules and expectations, preferring to dwell inside her own head—in her own ambitions towards becoming a writer and in her dreams of catching the attention of Will Allen, her English teacher.
Her coming-of-age is marked by violence in the form of an assault, which leaves her visibly wounded, and which her parents are quick to cover up in the name of “reputation.” She also experiences a changeable, manipulative relationship with Joon-Ho, a family friend from Korea who insinuates himself into Mary’s life in Toronto. The men in the story, from Mary’s English teacher to her attempted rapist, are strikingly diverse, ranging from violent to idealized, from fetish to tragedy.
I think that one of the novel’s strengths is its nuanced depiction of gender — even as Choi is able to create such vivid male characters, she is also able to explore the affecting overlaps between the women in the story. In one particularly poignant moment, Mary reflects on the possibility of entering into a marriage orchestrated by her parents. She sees herself as “already a ghost” in her white dress, and wonders how she is any different from Delia, who “had to sleep with men she didn’t love to survive.” After all, she reflects, “we each in our own way had surrendered our lives.” This balancing of surrender or sacrifice, for one’s family or culture for example, and the struggle for independence and freedom is a thread that runs through each and every character in the novel, allowing for them to be read through and against one another, and demonstrating a kind of inherent connection that cuts across cultural difference.
While Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety is masterful in its rendering of diversity, I would also add that it is, above all, a story about empathy. Perhaps the store itself best symbolizes this—for Mary, it represents a prison of sorts, even as it is the mechanism for her parents’ prosperity and assimilation. Confining as it is for her, it is also where Mary gets most of her story ideas, and where she is able to forge meaningful connections with the customers that come and go. These include Tico, the homeless man with eyes like Gregory Peck’s, Mrs. Foster, the middle-aged Irish woman who helps Mary do her hair before the prom, and of course, Delia herself.
Despite how they may appear on the surface, they are complex characters with complex struggles, and Mary’s relationships with them—even those that are very brief—are instances of empathetic connection that sustain and inspire her. By the same token, Choi’s novel as a whole dramatizes the process of empathy, even when it seems impossible, even in response to destruction and pain. This novel is not a stereotypical portrayal of controlling parents and rebellious teenagers, but rather a sensitive and subtle portrait of the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in family, friendship, and love. Conflict gives way to tenderness, violence to understanding, even as it leaves one scarred.
Kimberley Griffiths is the Editorial Assistant / Office Administrator at Inanna Publications and the Editorial Literary Assistant at P.S. Literary Agency. She is a former PhD student at the University of Toronto, and is a long-time book lover and aspiring editor. Currently, she is starting a small side business correcting the grammar of cats.
In 2012, what literary award did Ann Y.K. Choi win?
Keep an eye out for the rest of the Toronto Book Awards reviews, and more chances to enter.