Xue Yiwei: 希拉里, 密和, 我 (Celia, Misoka, I)
Our unnamed hero/narrator is a Chinese immigrant to Montreal. At the start of the book he is approaching fifty and is widower with an adult daughter from whom he is somewhat estranged.
We gradually learn his story. He had been a journalist in Guangzhou. He had been introduced to his future wife as a good prospect. She had a Ph. D. in biology and was a respected scientist. They married and had a daughter. However, his wife started criticising him and said he was irresponsible. She was highly critical of the Chinese education system and said, in order to give their daughter a good education, they should emigrate. An uncle of hers lived in Montreal so they moved there, though others had suggested Toronto or Vancouver. When they finally arrived in Montreal, the uncle said they had made a big mistake and that the Chinese education system was far better than the Canadian one.
His wife had to take a menial job as a lab technician and, as he could not work as a journalist, he became a house-husband, looking after the daughter, with whom he had a good relationship. However, she is soon fed up with the job and suggests he buy a convenience store (on borrowed money) which he does. She quits her job soon after.
They run the store till she gets pancreatic cancer and then, when she gets worse, they sell up. She dies and from this point his daughter soon moves out and almost completely cuts off contact with him. He does not know why. This is where the novel starts.
While wandering round he meets a young woman who looks lost. She has just arrived from Korea and he volunteers to show her the way. She reminds him of his daughter. When they get to Beaver Lake which, as it is winter, is frozen, she suggests they go skating and he readily agrees. He and his daughter had regularly skated on the lake when she was younger.
The next day, he decides to make this a regular thing and returns carrying his skates and his daughter’s. There is one woman there when she arrives first thing in the morning. She has been skating and she will then go skiing. She had a vulnerability to her, a sense she might crumble at the slightest disturbance. He nicknames her the healthy sufferer. He does try and speak to her but she is curt. Eventually they do talk and he learns that she is the eponymous Celia. She asks him about China.
Also at the lake every day is a woman in an electric wheelchair. He eventually talks to her – he has to switch to French as her English is not very good though she is clearly of South-East Asian origin and people of South-East Asian origin tended to speak English rather than French – but she tells him I value my privacy. She spends much of her time writing in a notebook. She, too, will be a bit more forthcoming. She is the eponymous Misoka. But who are they?
The Enigma of the paradoxical lives of Celia and Misoka, one a healthy sufferer, the other a combination of innocence and mystery, had piqued in me a curiosity that had long been stifled by the monotony of day-to-day life.
Misoka asks him about the Old Summer Palace, a place that had been very important to him. Celia, however, is interested in Shakespeare and, at his request, agrees to teach him about the sonnets.
Initially, while the two women are aware of one another, they do not meet à trois. Misoka thought that Celia had suffered a psychological blow. However, they do all three eventually meet together and there seems to be a bit of animosity between the two women.
We and he gradually learn about the two women, their backgrounds and why both have an interest in China and what and why Misoka is writing. A sub-plot develops in that our narrator keeps dreaming about his wife and his Taiwanese neighbour tells him how to exorcise ghosts. In the end We are just three insignificant grains of sand, destined in the end to be blown apart by the winds of our time.
This is an an excellent novel even if not always cheerful. Pretty well every marriage in this book is a dismal failure. Death hovers over it. The narrator loses his wife but premature death is also something other characters have to deal with. Our narrator has a not entirely satisfactory relationship with women. Both his parents seem to despise him, in favour of his brother. He has problems with his Chinese female boss, his wife and his daughter and though he establishes a relationship with Misoka and Celia, it is not all plain sailing.
As our author tells us, the other key theme of this book is migration. He and his wife (and her uncle) all migrate but are not entirely happy with the result. Misoka is also a migrant and she, too, has her problems. Immigrants, even if they have money, face unavoidable difficulties “like solitude, humiliation, and monotony, like repetitiveness, directionlessness, and helplessness.
The other issue is loneliness. As Celia says Fucking loneliness,” she said. “It’s a cancer, a cancer none of us can escape. All the main characters seem to suffer from it and struggle with finding a solution. Obviously, migrating to a foreign country does not help.
Xue Yiwei, himself an immigrant to Canada, gets under the skin of the immigrants and how they cope and do not cope with immigration. However he also deals with the other complexities of relationships, including marriage and parent/children relationships, most of which go wrong. Does meeting strangers change you? There is no doubt that the three eponymous characters are changed to some degree by their meeting and it could be said that. from what we know of our narrator, these two relationships he has, are, as far as we know, rare successes for him. But ultimately, as he says, it is just the story of that most unusual of Montreal winters.
First published in 2016 by Hua dong shi fan da xue chu ban she
First English translation in 2022 by Rare Machines/Dundurn Press
Translated by Stephen Nashef