Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Reviewed by Annabel

For some, this debut novel was a surprise inclusion on the longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction this year – for a start, it’s a dark comedy, and comedy rarely features in prize longlists. I, however, was delighted to see it there, for it does have a heart and is packed full of character and drama.

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland is a family-owned restaurant. Established several decades ago, it is popular, famed for its signature dish of roast duck, carved at the diner’s table into exactly 32 pieces each time. As the novel opens, Jimmy Han, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother Johnny since their father died, is sitting at a booth with Uncle Pang, discussing the re-employment of one of their old waiters:

“I was very happy to hear that Jack had come out of retirement,” Uncle Pang said. “But he might no longer be Duck House material, don’t you think?”

“It was Johnny’s idea to hire him back,” Jimmy said as he stood up. His older brother, in Hong Kong for another month, had a nasty habit of making decisions for the restaurant over Jimmy’s head. This one he’d made right before jetting off in January. “Loyalty counts for too much with him.”

“Yes.” Uncle Pang inspected the blade of his knife and rubbed at a water stain. “A good thing loyalty means less to you.”

Uncle Pang’s English, always fluent, had grown more dramatic over the years, to great effect. A cold tail of sweat curled down Jimmy’s lower back.

The above quote from page 2 captures many of the book’s concerns in one hit. Firstly, we have the problem of the ageing Ah-Jack, as he is mostly known, (with the Cantonese extension that expresses a familiar respect and gives a name a second syllable). There’s the intense sibling rivalry between Jimmy running the restaurant day-to-day and Johnny interfering from afar. Last, but not least, we have ‘Uncle’ Pang – who is the Tony Soprano of their community collecting his protection money.

The thing is, Jimmy believes that the Duck House is old-fashioned. His dream is to open a new restaurant of his own – without Johnny; more high-end, serving fusion food. He has a site, but the finance isn’t in place yet; he needs to persuade his mother to sell the family home, and move into a smaller place so he can get his inheritance early. He’s scared he’ll end up needing Uncle Pang’s help.

Meanwhile, the daily grind of restaurant life continues. The author portrays all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, as the staff bicker and jockey for position.

Nan, one of the managers, has her own problems outside her work. Her son Pat is now a feckless, workshy, young man. If she can persuade Jimmy to hire him, would he actually do the work? Her other problem is Ah-Jack, she’s loved him from afar for ages, she looks out for him, but Jack is a tricky man and still married, well on paper only.

Johnny arrives home from HK, the prodigal returned, full of plans for the Duck House, still ignoring his daughter Annie, who meanwhile has met Pat. Uh oh! Out together in Annie’s car, Pat makes her detour via the back of the restaurant, he has an errand to do…

The night will end in tragedy of a kind for the Han family – luckily no-one dies in the blaze which started in a dumpster, but the restaurant burns to the ground. Jimmy is sanguine, the insurance will pay – he can open his new restaurant – but first he has to persuade them it wasn’t an insurance job.

All this drama happens within the first third of the book. It’s such a busy book, there’s so much crammed into its pages. The urge to include all an author’s ideas can be a problem for debut novels, but here, its necessary – it truly illustrates the hectic life of the restaurant and its community.

If the May to September fledgling romance between Nan and Jack, and the teenaged pranks gone wrong with Pat, are one focus which concentrates on the lower paid, loyal – or not – workers, the complex family dynamics between Jimmy, Johnny and their mother, who in her own machinations reminded me slightly of Livia in The Sopranos, present the other side of life. That’s not to say that the Han sons’ father hadn’t worked himself into his grave to establish and grow the Duck House, but that Jimmy and Johnny taken over a successful going concern. Then Johnny had married a woman with a trust fund, which saw him right when they divorced; Jimmy is naturally more than a little jealous at his brother’s (good) fortune.

Lillian Li makes us care for Jimmy and his American dream, even with all his failings. But it is Nan and Jack that really tweak our heartstrings. They are all such wonderful three-dimensional characters and you’ll laugh and cry with them throughout.

Li adds some sparkling dialogue to the super characters and family dyamics. She blends this with a suitably complex plot enveloped by the hectic restaurant setting to make a great combination. The story is told with humour and pathos and I found this a most satisfying debut novel. I can highly recommend it.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant (Pushkin Press, 2019). 978-1911590071, 336pp., hardback.

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