In a Chinatown housing project lives twelve-year-old Benny, his ailing grandmother, and his neighbor Constantine, a man who believes he's a reincarnated medieval samurai. When his grandmother is hospitalized, he is reluctantly taken in by Constantine and soon, an unlikely bond forms between the two. At least, that's what Yu wants to write. The creator of a bestselling comic book, Yu is struggling with continuing the poignant tale of Benny and Constantine and can't help but interject from the present day, slowly revealing a darker backstory. Can Yu confront the demons he's spent his adult life avoiding or risk his own life... and Benny's?
The puzzle pieces... illustrate the complexity — and heartbreaking arduousness — of healing severe wounds from long ago. The novel’s formal dexterity — story within a story, fiction highlighting its fictiveness, ‘real’ character conversing with his ‘fictional’ creation — is immersive and intriguing. Arguably, chapter by chapter, the technique offers diminishing returns ... Ultimately, Chong, like Benson, declines to offer any logical explanation. And while, in the end, Benson confronts a villain and achieves a degree of heroic redemption, the problematic setting has a corrosive effect. Akin to dodgy CGI, it draws the eye to material that diminishes the overall success of the picture.
Part 1 of Chong’s novel unfolds in a present-tense voice, as though Benson is narrating Benny’s tale in real time, as it comes to him. The format holds the reader at a remove, complicating efforts to connect with the story or its characters. Part 2 is more successful, offering depth-conferring glimpses into the minds of both Benny and Benson, but the climax, while earned, proves less cathartic than disturbing.