Last Night at the Telegraph Club
When I first saw the cover of this book on a ‘Most Anticipated Releases of 2021’ list somewhere on the Internet, I was instantly pulled in; and when I later read ‘queer Chinese historical fiction in 1950’s San Francisco’ I was absolutely sold and quickly ordered it.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows seventeen-year-old Lily Hu, a Chinese-American girl growing up in 1950’s Chinatown, balancing between her newfound feelings for Kath, a white girl, and being ‘a good Chinese girl’. Living in a time where being queer is dangerous, the neon lights of a lesbian bar known as the Telegraph Club offer a haven to those in need of it. To Lily, a girl questioning her identity and her sexuality, the club serves as a beacon of light summoning her forward, offering her the answers she’s been looking for.Malinda Lo effortlessly merges the two central themes of the novel: being Chinese and a lesbian in a time when neither were well-received in America.
I really loved Lily as a character – as a Chinese-American lesbian girl, she’s living in a time that proves to be really difficult for her. While she has to hide one part of her identity because what are gay rights in the 1950’s, she also has to live in fear of deportation because of the Red-Scare threatening her family’s safety and her father’s citizenship. She wants to make her family proud and she has some really big impressive career dreams, but she also knows who she is and what she wants out of life.
“Now she laid the women pilots on the bed next to Katherine Hepburn and Tommy Andrews and looked at them all in succession. She couldn’t put into words why she had gathered these photos together, but she could feel it in her bones: a hot and restless urge to look — and, by looking, to know.”
And it’s so hard for her, in 1950’s America, to have all of those things, but she is so determined and willing to take the risks, it’s admirable. This story really offers an intimate lens into the lives of those who experienced and lived through this time period, which is the beauty of historical fiction and why I love this one so much.
Now, I don’t normally gravitate towards historical fiction, but this book is the epitome of what a perfect *well-researched* historical fiction book looks like for me. Oh, did I mention it was well-researched? Because yes, it was so well-researched! Please, do not skip the author’s note in this one (and if you are skipping authors’ notes, I have a bone to pick with you). I actually read the author’s note first, which kind of helped set the tone for the story and gave me wonderful context. Malinda Lo is so thorough and her novel is so, dare I say it a third time, WELL-RESEARCHED – brimming with historical context and radiating lesbian culture, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is raw and tender and beautiful.
“The more her mother insisted it was a mistake, the more certain Lily was that it wasn’t. Perhaps that was the most perverse part of this: the inside-outness of everything, as if denial would make it go away, when it only made the pain in her chest tighten, when it only made her emotions clearer.”
And now a quote from author Malinda Lo to totally make you fall in love with her, “I especially love that I’m getting to tell a story that has rarely if ever been told: the story of a queer Chinese-American girl in the 1950’s. This girl has been invisible for far too long, but I’m totally certain that she existed, because we always have.”
All in all, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is such an incredible coming-of-age story about self-discovery, first love, found family and lesbian culture. It’s an ode to San Francisco and its streets and its beautiful Chinatown. It’s about conquering adversity, making choices, and always staying true to yourself even in the most trying of times. One of the most thorough and in-depth historical fiction novels I’ve ever read. Now you go and read it, too.
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: Jan 2021
Date Read: Jan 21 — Jan 31, 2021
CW: coming out themes, period typical racism, racial slurs, misogyny, deportation, homophobia and lesbophobia