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February 24, 2010

The artist as a young woman, a book review

Judith Maclean Miller

More by this author...

Yan Li. Lily in the Snow, Women's Press, 2010. 381pp. ISBN 978-0-88961-479-6

Yan Li, the author of Lily in the Snow, was born in China, grew up there and came to Canada as an adult, leaving a career in journalism behind her.

She had a difficult time finding a place in Canada, working at a range of demanding and sometimes humiliating jobs. Through all the hardships of a new country and a strange language, Yan Li has never given up her dream of being a writer. She has published prize winning work in both Chinese and English.

Lily in the Snow is Yan Li’s most recent novel. It shows us both China and Canada through the perspective of ordinary people’s lives.

Grace, mother of the main character Lily, tells her daughter that she should always write good things about her country, about China, that she should not criticize it or show its flaws. Stubbornly, Lily responds that, “A nation or people can only progress if they can see their own problems clearly.”  

As a Canadian reading this novel of people coming to Canada from China, I am often embarrassed.

People arrive here with high hopes and with differing dreams. Harsh reality pushes some of them to the edge of despair; sometimes they tip over. Lily is right that unless we see these problems, we can do little about them. I am always relieved when a Canadian in this novel is helpful, supportive, or honorable.

Lily chose to come to Canada because of Norman Bethune, a hero in China who is neglected, ignored or unknown in Canada—to her astonishment. She eventually concludes, though, that this country made Bethune the man he was, worthy of her respect.

Lily has a clear-eyed view of people and events around her. She also has a delicious sense of humour, enjoying absurdity or incongruity with a hearty laugh or with silent amusement. A reader laughs with her.

Human nature is endlessly interesting to Lily who ponders people and their motivations, always trying to understand why things happen as they do. She says of one character, “As the only son of a well-known pastor in his hometown, however, he had been brought up with a strong sense of sin.” She decides that she can trust him to behave appropriately.

It is also true that Lily has deep compassion for people caught in impossible situations. She tries to help recent immigrants to Canada. In that role, she is often drawn into situations of real tragedy, and she suffers when she is unable to help.

While Lily is trying to make things better for other people, she herself is living in poverty, a single parent with a small child whose mother comes to visit her from China, to berate her with scolding advice. The story of the relationship between this mother and her daughter unfolds through the novel. It is a story of neglect, betrayal and the unspoken love between them which survives against all odds.

Lily is kind, but she is frequently outspoken, to the despair of her mother who thinks she should be more politic. This is very much a novel of the young-woman-as-writer. Lily seldom speaks about herself to all the people around her, but she observes closely, seeing though petty jealousies, pomposity, arrogance and pretension. She is often quite frank that she needs to know about things “for my writing.”

This is a novel of vivid characters, investigating their lives in China and in Canada. It is a novel of love affairs—sometimes tangled and complicated, sometimes resolved, sometimes not. It is a novel of a growing affection for Canada, its beauties presented in lyrical descriptions and its challenges faced unflinchingly. It is most of all a novel of the triumph of the human spirit.

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