Book review: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Title: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 19 January 2021

Genre: Young Adult | Historical fiction

Rep: Chinese American mc, lesbian mc + li

Page extent: 416 pages

Rating:

Acclaimed author of Ash Malinda Lo returns with her most personal and ambitious novel yet, a gripping story of love and duty set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare.

“That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other.” And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can’t remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.

What a really lovely first read of 2021! I’ve never read any Malindo Lo before, but I was very interested in this historical YA exploring the intersection of lesbian culture and Chinese American culture. And I’m so impressed! I thought this was a really excellent book, Lo really captures such a clear picture of life in the 50s. The book is absolutely dripping in lesbian culture, and I think the historic details and setting were written exceedingly well.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows Chinese American Lily, a baby gay who is just beginning to realise there is something different about her. She becomes friends with the only other girl in her advanced math class who introduces her to a lesbian club, the Telegraph Club, where she begins to explore her identity and tries to figure out how she can be both Chinese American and lesbian.

I thought Lo did an absolutely brilliant job of writing in this time period. You can really tell everything has been so excellently researched. It’s quite a slow book because a lot of time is spent on lots of small details and worldbuilding around the 50s time period, from larger details like the Red Scare/communism, down to the small things to do with clothes or food. I can definitely see that some people might not like this style. But I love books like this, ones that really give you such a perfectly clear vision of the world and setting. I loved the exploration of queer identity during this time period in particular, Lo drops subtle details that really help show what life was like for queer people in this era – my absolute favourite moment of this was Lily being fascinated by the lesbian pulp novels she found at the back of a drug store, and these being what led her to first start thinking she might be lesbian. It’s so funny to me that in the 50s queer people were discovering their identities in the same way I did 70 years later: just through a slightly different medium of literature (pulp novel in a drug store, vs fanfic online!)

The relationship between Kath and Lily was also expertly written. I think it might be one of my favourite relationships in YA. There was such a sense of magic and beauty that is so inherent in your first teenage relationship. It really captured that sense of first love, but in a very queer way – that sense of happiness when you first figure out what your feelings mean, that pure joy when you touch someone, but also that sense of shame and guilt that sometimes follows. The juxtaposition of the shame and happiness was written particularly well, and Lily’s journey to fit her lesbian culture into her Chinese American family was really exceptionally written and very honest.

There were some small issues I had. My main complaint is the small sections interspaced throughout Lily’s story where we got a POV from Lily’s parents or aunts from several years previously. I know these probably were included to give a better understanding of the time period and more history for the communism plot line but they felt very out of place to me. I didn’t really care about them at all, they just kept taking me out of Lily’s story – sometimes even at big cliffhanger moments!! Tell me what’s happening to Lily and Kath please and not her parents 20 years ago! It did also end quite abruptly. After quite a slow, tender and gentle story, the ending felt very rushed in comparison.

But overall, I thought this was a really excellent historical fiction YA. This book just exudes lesbian culture and it was fascinating to read about this time period and explore how queer culture developed during a time where it was illegal. I also thought Lo expertly explores the intersection of Lily’s lesbian and Chinese American culture, it felt like a very honest and very personal story and was beautifully written.

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