Lauralyn Chow’s Paper Teeth
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2016
Trade paperback, 240 pages
Beginning with a menu rather than a table of contents, Paper Teeth is structured around food. Specifically, debut author Lauralyn Chow presents ten Chinese dishes with their corresponding numbers for ease of ordering, both in an imagined restaurant and in this collection. The stories are pulled from the history of the Lee family, pulling from the past and the present, like a hungry customer would flip through the menu to assemble the perfect combination of flavours.
The numbers are disordered, seemingly random, like memories, but a common ingredient is Penelope Lee. Pen is not the customer who orders from the special menu of quintessentially traditional dishes listed in Chinese script. Nor does she order from the page of Canadian food. She orders from the pages between: a metaphor for her layered identity, which simultaneously reflects different family members’ relationships with food, across and within generations.
Figurative language is a delicacy on the menu. The prose is polished and taut. When a simile appears it echoes the work thematically, as when the “lid of the enormous soda pop cooler feels heavy, opens like a casket on hinges that sound like question marks”. The tone throughout is searching, enquiring. And although the collection ends with the first menu item, it is because the story has circled near the beginning, not because a solution resides there.
Nonetheless, the language and content does adjust to suit a given story’s perspective and the children’s voices are credible, capturing both innocence and knowingness. “Mumma’s pointer finger says shhhhhhh. Pen detects the crinkle fans. Mumma opens crinkle fans beside her eyes when she is pretendnice – butbeingmean to Pen in public or when there are other people in the house.” Notes of irony and dashes of humour aid the digestion.
Set in the 1960s, 1970s, and present-day, in Edmonton and Calgary, the setting is significant but the experiences captured are vivid and will serve a variety of readers. The author’s note suggests that she has been working on these stories for many years; her grace and acuity ensure that many readers will crave a second-helping.
© Marcie McCauley 2017