“Their words comforted me on many a lonely night and made me feel like part of a family. ”
The Downstairs Girl is a compelling and poignant novel that follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese American living in 1890s Atlanta.
The story explores the way in which Jo, alongside other Chinese Americans, are virtually unseen by their society, a society which sees only in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Jo is constantly reminded by the people around her that she isn’t a real American. Being a girl further complicates matters, as her future seems to offer few possibilities that don’t involve becoming a wife.
Jo’s upfront narration make her into an immediately sympathetic character. I admired her resilience and wisdom. Time and again she is forced to adapt to the hard reality around her: the people around exclude her, mistreat her, and worse still. After being unjustly fired from her hat maker position she is forced to work for an old childhood acquaintance, a girl who has grown from a child bully (who enjoyed tormenting Jo) into a cruel young woman with a vicious streak (I kept thinking of her as Charlotte LaBouff’s evil twin).
Jo, together with Old Gin—an elderly man who has taken care of her ever since she was abandoned as a baby by her parents—secretly lives below the house of a newspaper family. Over the course of her life she has longed to belong to a family such as theirs but so far has contented herself to observing them. Luckily for Jo, the family is in need of an ‘agony aunt’ and she believes, quite rightly, that she has the skills for the job. By assuming the identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can address issues regarding race and gender. Her columns of course aren’t well received by all…
There are various interesting plot-lines that make The Downstairs Girl into an engrossing read. Jo is an interesting main character, which makes a change from most YA releases which usually star rather insipid protagonists. Here we have a narrator who you can really root for and truly admire. Her passion for words and great empathy made her all the more compelling.
The cast of characters is as complex as the protagonist herself. I must commend Stacey Lee for making each character into a nuanced one. Rather than condoning the behaviour or qualities of her characters, she allows Jo—and by extension the readers—to see that something or someone might have influenced their actions. She doesn’t excuse their awfulness but rather she allows us to see the many different sides that make up a person’s character.
The setting was almost frightfully realistic (racism and sexism are sadly an every-day reality). There are many western elements which balanced some of the heavier themes explored by the story, and I enjoyed the use of certain conventions of the historical fiction genre (for example, Jo dresses as a man). The novel portrays a particular type of American experience, one that focus on the individuals who are rejected by their own society (for example, Jo’s friends are excluded by Atlanta’s white feminists so form a group of their own). Jo is able to connect with those who similarly to her are marginalised by mainstream society.
Running alongside various other side-plots is the one of Jo’s identity. While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by certain revelations I was still completely captivated by the story and by Jo’s quest for the truth.
The sweet and genuine romance between Jo and another character was a minor aspect of this novel, one that made for some lovely and heartfelt scenes, moments of repose for both Jo and her readers.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this one, especially to those looking for a YA take on western or for those who are looking for a thought-provoking story that explores the intersection between identity, family, and society.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars