Love and Other Consolation Prizes: Sweet and Likable


By Jamie Ford
Ballantine, 330 pages.

A novel about forced emigration, a harrowing escape from death, youngsters being sold in raffles, growing up in a whorehouse, the effects neurosyphilis, and spending one's adult years trying to mask the past doesn't generally lend itself to adjectives such as "sweet" and "charming," but this one does. Those familiar with Jamie Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, know that he can tackle bleak subjects with a light hand—too light for those who see his work as analogous to an overly sunny Ken Burns film—but with enough aplomb to make his books engaging reads for my tastes.

Ford opens his novel in China in 1902, a decidedly non-propitious year. It is just twelve months after the collapse of the Boxer rebellion, millions are addicted to drugs, foreigners are picking the corpse of the decaying Qing Dynasty, and rural Chinese face hunger and starvation. Such horrors would have been the fate of Yung Kun-ai, had not his mother sold him to a shipping company bound for North America. Yung, who is about five-years-old and has been told the ship is owned by his "uncle," is crowded into the fetid hold of a rusty ship with dozens of others—the girls earmarked for brothels and the boys for picking cane in Hawaii, mainland servitude, or being dumped in the ocean if approached by maritime inspectors. As if Yung doesn't have enough problems, he is a "half-breed" pariah because his father was Caucasian. He too would have drowned, had he not used his mother's hairpin—his only link to his birthplace—to cut his way from the bundle to which he was hastily tied and tossed overboard.

Yung is plucked from the waters of Seattle harbor and, after a few more misadventures, is taken in by Mrs. Irvine, a moral crusader and patron of both a children's home and a Christian academy. As Ernest Young*, he spends seven years with Irvine, before parting company with her. As her final "gift" to Ernest, she takes him the world's fair, the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific (AYP) Exposition, where he is raffled off to the highest bidder. Yes—you read that right; children were raffled at the AYP. Ernest's new patron is Florence Nettleton, known professionally as Madame Flora, and her profession is the world's oldest. Hijinks, heartbreak, an eye-opening education, love, and other consolations are about to come Ernest's way in Seattle's Tenderloin district, where Flora runs her high-class house of ill repute.

The novel jumps back and forth in time bound by the AYP at one end, and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition that gave Seattle its iconic Space Needle and monorail system at the other. We meet Ernest as a boy and teen in the early 20th century, surrounded by the painted ladies of the Tenderloin, the colorful household staff, and his special friends Maisie (Flora's daughter) and Fahn—on both of whom he holds serious crushes. These parts of the book are essentially a coming of age story, albeit a very unorthodox one. In 1962 we encounter an aging Ernest, a married man whose wife has dementia-like symptoms. He passes his days caring for his wife, hanging out with Pascual, his Filipino best friend, and visiting with his daughters: Juju, a journalist, and Hanny, a flirty showgirl. Juju is slugging it out in the old boy's press room and the 1962 world's fair provides her with a good excuse to write the story of turn-of-the-century Chinese immigration to Seattle. Her parents would make excellent subjects, except her mother's memory is unreliable and Ernest's tongue isn't flapping.

Ford plots his story well and this novel moves at such a crisp pace that it seems much shorter than it is. It is fair comment to say that overall Love and Other Consolation Prizes is closer to pulp fiction than to that elusive (and often over exalted) category called "literature." The action, details, and relationships of Ernest's AYP years are far more interesting than the parts of the book set in 1962—and not just because coming of age tales tend to be more satisfying than leaving the stage narratives. Although we are left to piece together what happened in the intervening fifty years of Ernest's life, Ford's book could benefit from a sprinkling of red herrings as it's too easy to predict the book's overall arc. This makes certain resolutions feel more convenient than convincing. In addition, Ford captures the "feel" of the early 1900s better than he does mid-century. Juju, in particular, seems too modern for 1962. All of this aside, young Ernest, his circle, and his world are so winning that one can take, if I might, consolation in them when future thrills wear thin.

Rob Weir 

* Ford, whose father and grandfather were of Chinese descent, interjects a biographical parallel in the Anglicization of Yung Kun-ai. By all rights, the author should bear a Chinese surname, but his paternal grandfather changed his family's last name to Ford for mysterious reasons.

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