Book Review: We Two Alone by Jack Wang

We Two Alone – Jack Wang (Astoria, 2020)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book from the publisher. All opinions are my own.

This short story collection moves through history and place, highlighting and documenting the experiences of Chinese immigrants – the Chinese diaspora – across the world. Moving roughly through time, the stories don’t all centre around their characters’ experiences of being Chinese and yet, it is at the heart of each story.

The stories are unrelated and yet together create a picture of a unique experience. We begin in Vancouver, with a young laundry boy, somewhere at the turn of the 20th century, who wants so badly to play hockey that he disguises himself as a girl. In another story, a Canadian-Chinese couple moves to Shanghai because the husband is unable to practise medicine in Canada as a Chinese man. Other stories are set in South Africa and Vienna and these offer a unique view of Chinese experience around the world, stories that I haven’t heard told before.

In the later stories, set in more modern times, it would be easy to imagine that being Chinese is less central to the characters’ identity. In the title story, Leonard is an aging actor, struggling in his career as his marriage falls apart. Here the racism he experiences is more subtle but still very present, particularly in his career as an actor.

All together, I did very much enjoy this story collection and the light it cast on some less told stories. In “Everything Between”, we witness a Chinese family attempting to buy a house in South Africa, forced to ask permission of their new neighbours to move into the neighbourhood. In “The Nature of Things” we see the beginnings of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a time of horrific violence in China but one left out of many history Euro-centred history books. This story also stands out with its unique and somewhat magical ending and the focus on Alice, one of the few women in this collection who we get up close to. The last few stories, set later in the 20th century and early 21st century, all feature men who, a few days after I finished the book, rather blend together. They’re smart and driven but struggle in relationships and their voices are each quite similar. As I continued reading, it felt like Wang lost steam and the later stories lacked the emotional strength and unique features that made me excited at the beginning of the collection.

In the end though, there is a lot to appreciate here and I have a feeling that a historical novel from Jack Wang would definitely be worth reading.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: We Two Alone by Jack Wang”

  1. It’s a shame when a collection has all of its strongest stories at the beginning, meaning it loses a little steam the more you get into it. Still, this sounds interesting!

    1. It is. In this case it felt like Wang really did better and more interesting work when in the historical realm and as the stories moved into a modern setting they just all blurred together.

    1. Mostly I’ve been fortunate to have publishers reach out to me. This one is a Canadian publisher but hopefully the book will be more widely available this spring.

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