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‘For Today I Am a Boy’

by Kim Fu

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pp., $23

Peter, the treasured lone son among four children born to immigrant Chinese parents in small-town Ontario, has a secret: deep down, he knows he’s really a girl. His body is “a combination of arms and legs and heart and lungs. It had nothing to do with me. My real body was somewhere else, waiting for me. It looked like my sisters’ bodies.”

Kim Fu, a University of British Columbia graduate and Seattle resident, has created a touching, quiet first-person hero — and a believably unhappy family — for her sharply written debut novel, “For Today I Am a Boy,” which takes place over several decades. Peter Huang, born in 1979, is his parents’ third child; his father, focusing all his hopes on his longed-for son, teaches him to shave at age six. Crammed around him in the family, in an uncomfortably small house with three bedrooms “growing off the combined kitchen-living room like tumors,” are three sisters: poised Adele, studious Helen and the playful baby of the family, Bonnie. As they grow, the sisters fly the nest quickly, as if pulled by some magnetic force; Peter, wondering about a different kind of life with fewer secrets, makes his way to Montreal, working in restaurant kitchens and carefully feeling his way into his — her — true self.

Though Fu shows hints of sly wit (particularly in a scene, late in the book, where a group of young people elaborately discuss their food sensitivities), “For Today I Am a Boy” is mostly melancholy. Depression seems to hang over the Huang home, like the odor of a frequently cooked dinner that never quite dissipates; Peter’s mother seems so worn down she’s a half-erased pencil drawing, “more like a wind than a person, visible only in her aftermath, the cleanliness and destruction she left behind.” All of the sisters are troubled, and Peter’s journey to self-acceptance is long and often harsh, peppered with cruel playmates, strange neighbors and, later, sadistic and miserable lovers. You wish for just a little more joy, for Peter and his sisters to have just a few more moments of pleasure.

But Fu, a young writer (she’s 26), has plenty of time to find that balance — and “For Today I Am a Boy” is an assured, spiky debut. It’s a coming-of-age tale for our time, of someone who as a teenager believed that “life was different in cities where the condos had been built, the pits had been filled, the buildings were tall — where you weren’t assaulted on all sides by failure and empty sky,” and that a boy considered a king to his father might someday find a life where he, rightly, wasn’t a boy at all.

Fu gives her book a sudden, unexpected ending that’s a bit of a jolt, but that feels earned and welcome. You close the book believing you’ve met a real person, and that you wish her well.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.