1367 Philippine style
The Cine Star Salon: a novel
by Leah Ranada
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2021
$21.95 / 9781774390320
Reviewed by W.H. New
This first novel by Leah Ranada is a contemporary version of an old trope, the growing-up-and-away novel, where the protagonist has to find out how to be herself, stop depending on others, deal with a challenge, and come to terms with the family that (despite everything) loves her.
At the centre of the cast of characters here is Sophia, a twenty-something Philippine-born hairdresser with her own shop in East Vancouver. She has an able if close-lipped assistant named Erica; a semi-reclusive teenaged brother Bryan who is into Cosplay but may emerge from it; parents who keep pressing her to go to university instead of working in a salon but may change their minds; and a white fiancé named Adrian, who (whatever status he may have in the father’s mind) is a drip. Sophia is unhappy when Adrian breaks off the engagement, but readers may cheer. Slow (and stylistically awkward to start, telling the reader too often how to react, rather than writing so that the reader will react), the novel initially threatens to get lost in conventional angst, but fortunately (post-Adrian) it picks up speed.
Because there’s more. There’s Manila. Which is a character in its own right, one that makes the novel come alive. Manila is where Sophia’s Vancouver family is from and where a lot of ideas about taste and success and custom have been shaped. It’s also the site of the Cine Star Salon of the title (once busy and now in danger of closing). It’s where Sophia first learned her vocation (skipping school to do so) and where the climactic revelation takes place.
The salon is a centre where the whole street gathers, where people talk and cheer and bet and gossip and learn about success and food and failure and overseas. It’s where Sophia met her mentors to begin with, and where, one way or another, she must meet with them again: Aling Helen (the onetime owner of the salon, now deceased), Aling Soledad (rumoured to be a call girl), Auntie Rosy (who drinks too much), Auntie Mila (Sophie’s mother’s sister), and Erwin (Sophie’s gay friend and confidant). [‘Aling’ — like ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’: a title of respect for a woman — is one of several Tagalog words woven casually into the text.] Each of these characters is a model for Sophie — but so is her mother, and that’s one of the things she has to figure out: how to hang on to the past, how to live in the present, how to be independent but at the same time how to resist conventional versions of independence (the bland white boy is one such convention, her father’s desire for a dull security is another).
I’ve said that Sophia is at the centre. That was my first reaction. But in retrospect I don’t believe she’s at the story’s heart. Told almost exclusively through dialogue, the narrative invites readers to follow all the decisions Sophia makes in the present. But I think Manila is the visceral heart of the story. Importantly, readers are being asked to comprehend the importance of ‘Manila’ (the source of vitality and contradiction in Sophia’s life) as an energy, a way of understanding the world. It exists in the past, the present, and likely in some form in the future as well. How do Sophie’s memories feed her? How do they mislead her? The novel asks these questions. Also: can she survive within her family, in the Canadian workplace, without her vapid fiancé? Answer: yes.
This book will attract readers for various reasons, but particularly for its validation of what is often dismissed as ‘women’s work.’ Here, hairdressing is not to be dismissed as ‘mere vanity,’ it’s the balance between appearance and truth; and gossip is not irrelevance, it’s connection. Stylistically, the book is uneven: but it comes most alive when depicting the details of the Philippine experience. I get the feeling that the story may have been intended for a young adult readership; the narrative is easy to follow and the language accessible. It’s also a first novel — an apprentice work — and welcome, for the reasons I’ve cited.
William New is the author of Reading Mansfield & Metaphors of Form (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999); he has written widely on short fiction in Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere. He is also the author of a dozen collections of poetry, including The Rope-Maker’s Tale (Oolichan Books, 2009), Neighbours (Oolichan, 2017), and In the Plague Year (Rock’s Mills Press, 2021). Editor’s note: William New has also reviewed books by John MacLachlan Gray, Bill Stenson, Jack Wang, Michael Kenyon, David Bergen, Darcy Bysouth, Julie Paul, Philip Huynh, and B.A. Thomas-Peter for The Ormsby Review.
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