Her Kind of Luck by Michelle Balogh is a captivating account of the life of Shan-Yi, a woman whose story spanned multiple continents and much of the 20th century.
The book gives insight into situations such as WWII-era Sydney, the lifestyle of a European man traveling the world as a salesman in the early 1930s, and a Chinese woman caring for two daughters alone in her village in the 1910s before leaving for America to join her husband.
Through it all, Balogh deftly characterizes Shan-Yi as charming and bold. She is a character that you want to follow, and that evidently other people in her life wanted to follow too.
Balogh relates how her interest was sparked after her great-grandmother, Shan-Yi, passed away and she moved into Shan-Yi’s apartment to sort her things. Even at this point it was clear that Shan-Yi had led an extraordinary life, as her ‘apartment didn’t belong to Sydney, it didn’t belong to Australia or to any other country. It was just like her – it belonged to the whole world.’ (p. 21)
Shan-Yi’s experiences are evocative of the era she lived in, such as how she was in quarantine “in America for forty days before she met her father for the first time. When the Lees were eventually allowed to go, Yee came to meet them. For weeks Teu Ying [Shan-Yi’s older sister] had chattered about seeing her father again…But when Yee stretched out his arms and asked Teu Ying for a hug, she cried ‘No!’ and fled to the other side of the room.
‘You’ve become an American father,’ said Poon Wong. ‘She’s not used to hugging.’” (p. 15)
Balogh’s storytelling is eminently readable, with the only road-bumps occurring when the story is broken up by jumping to an account of her own life.
These segments are largely concerned with detailing the experiences of the author as a twenty-something year old living in Sydney, having graduated from university and trying to decide what to do with her life. While it is brave to disclose personal details, at times these sections come off as breaking up the main story.
At other times, these segments efficiently remind the reader of how intriguing Shan-Yi’s life was. The portions set in Balogh’s lifetime will be relatable to many readers who have grown up during the past few decades, particularly in the city, and Shan-Yi’s life seems all the more exotic in comparison.
These sections also allow the reader to indulge in the whimsy of childhood—of having that quirky relative you got to visit when you were little. Balogh relates how Shan-Yi “could be terse in her disapproval and always spoke her mind, but in [her] home I was always free to roam – free to climb over furniture, to climb all over her.” (p. 20)
Shan-Yi’s mannerisms are portrayed charmingly by Balogh, who weaves together an impression of her great-grandmother aided by letters, anecdotes, and recordings of the woman herself.
In one telling story we learn that when Shan-Yi ‘first bought a microwave, the user’s manual said not to use the appliance for cooking eggs. The first thing she did was put an egg in, determined to see what would happen. The resulting explosion took hours to clean up.’ (p. 96)
Stories like this give the reader a well-rounded impression of Shan-Yi, both as a young woman facing the world and as an older woman who has finally found security. There is a whimsical quality to Shan-Yi’s life, and large sections of this novel are inarguably charming. The fact that the story’s key elements are true makes it all the more intriguing to read.
Balogh does very well at creating a character for her great-grandmother’s young self which matches the eccentricity and charm of her choices. The section where Alice meets Donald, a man living alone at a hotel in Seattle, is one such occasion:
‘There were writing desks in the lobby and one night she stood and watched a man scribble away below. She recognised him, she had seen him around the hotel before. His work ethic was transfixing—he sat there for hours, filling page after page. Looking down at him from above she wondered what he was writing, wondered what was keeping him occupied.
‘Writing home?’ the question escaped her before she knew it was coming, her voice falling down the mezzanine to the man below. It was days since she had spoken to a soul.
The young man turned his head to see her, blinking for a moment and then dropping his pen. He raced up the staircase to the mezzanine, where Alice had dropped into an armchair, startled by his approach. He drew a second armchair up to hers and took a seat beside her.
‘You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.’’ (p. 102-3)
This is just one example of Shan-Yi’s encounters with eccentric people all over the world, and the title is apt in its reference to how her life played out, always pulling her through even the most unusual of situations.
From travelling the world to finally finding a home and family in Sydney, Her Kind of Luck relates a story worth telling.
Originally from Canberra, Myra is a Sydney-based author whose writing has been published in the Sydney University Anthology. Her interests range from environmental science to socio-legal research, and these themes are reflected in her writing. Myra was the 2018 project and communications intern at Writing NSW.