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26th January
written by Steph

Sigh.  My first book read for this year’s Tournament of Books, was fairly atrocious, so despite the rocky start, I was at least optimistic that the next book would have to be better.  It’s the law of averages!  So I picked up Fae Myenne Ng’s Steer Toward Rock, and dove in hoping I was going to land in a somewhat deeper pool. Steer Toward Rock is largely about a Chinese man name Jack Moon Szeto who, during his youth, is sold into another family so that they can have a son.  When he is older, he is sent to San Francisco so that he can work off his debt to his non-blood father, and also act as a decoy husband for the second wife said father wants to also bring into America (hoping to get a true blood son out of her).  This is around the time of the Chinese Confession Program, when the INS were trying to weed out individuals who had lied to bring other Chinese immigrants into the country, and when Chinese immigrants were treated extremely poorly.  The novel examines the trials and tribulation of Jack, primarily focusing on his relationships with three pivotal women in his life: Joice, his first love; Ilin, his fake wife; and Veda, his daughter by Joice.  It examines what an individual is willing to undergo for love, as well as the role of family (both in terms of one that is formed versus one that we are tied to through blood), and of course the immigration experience and the struggles to habituate as well as the struggle for later generations to understand their heritage.  Through this exploration, Steer Toward Rock also addresses the issue of self-identity. To be honest, this book didn’t make much of an impression on me.  Maybe it’s because I know very little about Chinese culture or about that relevant time in U.S. history, but overall, I just never felt like this story gripped me.  There were bursts of compelling storytelling, but by and large, I feel like there was a failure to connect.  Ng’s writing relies on short phrases and odd juxtapositions that made me feel like I was reading a series of koans.  Her prose felt distinctly like Asian poetry, which I guess I just don’t get.  Because her writing is so stark, I felt as though I was supposed to feel the full force of each word, and together they would sum to produce some type of instinctive truth that would resonate within me.  But I didn’t, and instead felt like the language and myself were on totally different wavelengths.  I appreciated how stripped down and bare her style was, and believe it takes a good deal of mastery to wield words the way Ng does, but for all her marksmanship, I was never her target. In the end, I didn’t feel as though this story spoke to me above and beyond the words that were set before me on the page, and I felt that the scope of the story was never sufficiently broad to appeal to a universal audience.  I definitely wouldn't have looked twice at this book had it not been for the ToB, and I'm not sad that I did read it.  My rating of it may seem low, but I really felt totally neutral about it (not entirely true, I often found myself really hungry when reading Steer Toward Rock, because Ng very evocatively describes a plethora of Chinese dishes, that made my poor Nashville-deprived palate water).  I neither loved nor hated this book, but I certainly see how someone with a different background than my own could cherish this novel.  I kind of feel as though this book didn't fail me, so much as I failed it.  It just wasn’t for me (or I just wasn't for it), though on the upside, it was certainly a better read than my last. Rating: 2.5 out of 5


  1. 01/26/2009

    Thanks for the review! Not so sure about it, but it’s still on the list!

  2. 01/26/2009

    At the very least, I will say that these ToB books have not been overly long (so far… I think there are some longer ones on the horizon), so even when I don’t love them, I haven’t been having to spend too much of my life on them! I’d love to hear your take on this book should you get around to reading it.

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