Small Beauty is a unique little gem of a book that I’m afraid might not find the readership it deserves. I’ve never read anything quite like it and the combination of thoroughly believable characters, complex family relationships, and magical realism makes for a compelling offering. The main character is a Chinese-Canadian transgender woman named Mei who is struggling with grief and alcoholism after losing almost all her loved ones.
After her beloved cousin Sandy is killed in a freak accident, Mei returns to the house where she lived for years with Sandy and his mother, her aunt. Mei’s mother pretty much abandoned her when she realized she was trans and her aunt took care of her. It turns out Mei’s aunt was a closeted lesbian and she is visited by her aunt’s ex-lover, who is a bit of a TERF and laughs off Mei’s gender identity as the attention-seeking behavior of a confused femme.
This woman is immediately an unwelcome and off-putting presence in Mei’s life but but as the story goes on you begin to see the different viewpoints and shared pain in the complicated web of Mei’s family. This book doesn’t have a lot of traditional plot because a lot of it is set in the past. The author does an excellent job developing Mei’s character and handling a lot of sexuality and gender-related topics with sensitivity but without being didactic.
The author herself is a transgender Asian woman and I hope to see more from her in the future, her writing is strong and so is her ability to write flawed characters that ring true and are neither overly idealized nor exaggerated. I wish there had been more to the ending and I thought the story swung a little too much from being primarily realistic to much more fantastical in tone.
Otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it to people who are tired of authors of contemporary fiction that prioritize social messages over character development and good writing. I never felt like the author was trying to beat me in the face with a message because of the authenticity of the situations.