In 2005 I met Lily Chan in a writing group in Perth and she shared some early chapters from her work-in-progress, Toyo. Like many books, it involved a long journey for Lily, but I was thrilled when it was published by Black Inc in late-2012 and won the 2013 Dobbie Literary Award. Four years late, I’m finally reviewing it.
Toyo is the story, from birth to old age, of Chan’s grandmother, born to a young Japanese woman in the 1930s and growing up in Osaka with complex family relations. Toyo lives through World War Two as a child and the experience is narrated disconcertingly (for Australian readers) through her eyes: the Allied forces are the enemy, the familiar bigger picture of war is substituted with the daily realities and horrors for a Japanese child living through it. Toyo’s life is a rich one, filled with interesting characters, seasons of happiness, and tragedies she lives through stoically. She is widowed young; her life begins an unexpected third act as she follows her son to Western Australia and ends up living in the wheatbelt town of Narrogin, immersed in the religion of Sai Baba. Chan’s prose evokes these changing milieus so well, fully imagining lost worlds. The narrative unfolds in short scenes, some of everyday life, some of the defining moments of life. They have a powerful cumulative effect.
A subtitle appears on the cover: “A Memoir.” Its absence from the title page and the spine make it seem a little tentative – even if it was just a designer’s oversight. The problem with trying to classify Toyo is that it inhabits a subgenre which does not have a settled name – “biographical fiction” is not quite right. Like Drusjilla Modjeska’s Poppy and Kate Grenville’s One Life, it revivifies the life of a family member known to the writer. If it is a memoir, it is one in the sense that it retells, amplifies, expands, fictionalises the stories Toyo told to Lily. There’s a wise moment in the epilogue which explains the nature of the book more subtly and profoundly than an intrusive preface could have. Lily – in the third person – is looking through old photos and learns that her grandfather did not die suddenly from kidney failure as Toyo always said but over months. Yet in narrating his death, the book follows Toyo’s memory of it, rather than correcting Toyo’s story to be more historically accurate.
The scope of the book lends it poignance. We journey with Toyo over the course of 260 pages from her first enchanted experience of the world as a small girl to the surreal bewilderment of living with Alzheimer’s. It presents a narrative challenge, of course, and somewhere in the middle I was aware of the rapidity of deaths and births and traumas going past, none of them given the space they usually would have in a story. Yet this is ultimately part of the achievement of the book: to see a whole life unfold. The reader’s awareness of the book’s non-fiction status also gives more freedom. Non-fiction is allowed the almost inexplicable changes of fortune and irrational twists that life throws up but that fiction has to tone down.
Toyo is a great book and I hope it is long read and celebrated.