Number One Chinese Restaurant follows the lives of the owners and waitstaff of The Beijing Duck House, located just outside Washington DC. Once a favoured dining spot of politicians and celebrities, the restaurant’s glory days are now long gone. When an unexpected catastrophe hits the Duck House, Jimmy, Johnny, Nan and Jack are each forced to reconsider their lives and how to move forward.
When we are first introduced to the cast of Number One Chinese Restaurant, they seem a distinctly unlikeable bunch. Malicious, moody and weak, filled with self-pity and resentment, you’d be hard-pushed to find an attractive quality in any one of them. It’s a brave move from author Lillian Li to populate her debut novel with such unlikeable characters.
She rewards our patience, however. As Li unfurls the history of The Beijing Duck House and the people who work there, their various issues are gradually bathed in a more sympathetic light. Whilst it would be a stretch to characterise the book as a crime thriller (although the inciting incident is an act of arson), Li’s plotting is as smart and deliberate as the best in that genre. You will be told what you need to know about each of these characters at the exact right time, and each new piece of information has the potential of changing your entire opinion of them. By the end of the book, each of the principals has started on a journey towards redemption, or something like it.
Because Li presents her characters as flawed people as soon as we meet them, she opens her novel up to embrace a more interesting, nuanced morality system. Every major player in Number One Chinese Restaurant flouts either a legal or societal law, but that is only one part of who they are. We learn about them through how they react to their rule-breaking; their defiance, shame, carelessness or responsibility matters far more than the illicit acts they committed.
The complexity of these characters lends itself to complexity in their relationships. The most prominent of these is between Nan and Jack. Both waiters at the Duck House for a significant portion of their lives, they have been engaged in a platonic love affair for as long as they’ve known each other. This is despite Jack being nearly three decades Nan’s senior, and the fact that they both have spouses. Though they’ve never slept together, they both know their friendship is much more than a friendship.
Their romance is the book’s best example of Li’s honest approach to the humanity of her characters; it is clumsy and passionate; real, and yet muddily-defined. Like everything else in Number One Chinese Restaurant, the relationship between Nan and Jack is about as far as you can get from straightforward. And all the better for it.
With a cast of finely-drawn characters and admirably intricate plotting, Number One Chinese Restaurant is an intelligent read that becomes more absorbing with every page. A rich, satisfying debut from Lillian Li.
Number One Chinese Restaurant is published by One on 7 February 2019