Jamie Ford’s new novel “Songs of Willow Frost” begins with a wonderful story that unfolds before our eyes: The year is 1934 and 12-year-old William Eng is living at Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle, under the watch of some stern, chain-smoking nuns. When William sees a beautiful Chinese woman in a movie, he’s convinced she is his long-lost mother and he sets out to find her. His method of escape from the orphanage? He and a friend smuggle themselves into a visiting bookmobile.
Sounds great, right? But here’s where the trouble starts for Ford. When William finds his mother, she takes over the novel, filling readers in on her long, complicated back story. There’s a big difference between watching a story unfold and having a character tell a story. While she tells a tragic tale, it’s not suspenseful. We already know the ending: she gives William up for adoption.
Ford flips back and forth between Willow’s told story and William’s lived story, making for some disjointed and repetitive scenes. Instead of making readers feel invested in this family drama, the divided format keeps us at arm’s-length.
There’s also the matter of Ford’s prose, which is heavy-handed, especially at the end of chapters. When feeling anxious about finding his mother, William seeks advice from his friend Charlotte, who is blind. “‘Seeing isn’t believing. Feeling is believing.’ She reached out and patted his coat … ‘I feel you.’”
The chapters also, baffling, have titles: blunt phrases like, “Tears” and “Glory of Mourning” that do little to genuinely connect readers with the prose.
What we can connect with, however, is the time period. Ford clearly did his research for this novel: The Hoovervilles, the burgeoning movie scene, the prejudice toward Chinese-Americans, all firmly place readers in depression-era Seattle. If there were more action — and less telling — readers might connect with the characters as well.