Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading Notes: Fishing for Tigers

I read Emily Maguire's latest novel, Fishing for Tigers, as soon as it came out, and meant thereafter to review it, but all my good intentions vis a vis book reviewing were swallowed up by the Booker Prize longlist. (Penni Russon's wonderful Only Ever Always was another book that similarly suffered from delayed review syndrome).

Well, I had trouble sleeping last night, pain and heat not being a great combination, so I was casting around for something to re-read that would put me in the right frame of mind to rest. I'm not sure what made me reach for Fishing with Tigers, but as it turned out, that was the lousiest choice I could've made, because it not only didn't put me to sleep, it sucked me in so deeply (again) that I ended up staying up til 1am to finish my re-reading. Aside from making me tired today, this finally persuaded me that I ought to write my review of this book, because it resonated with me a lot, and I think it's worth putting text to screen about it.

I came to this book specifically and entirely because of its setting. I have a decades-long love affair with Hanoi (with Vietnam generally, but Hanoi in particular). Despite the fact that I've only been in country twice, and only to Hanoi once, my interest, and affection, runs deep. My family has long connections to Vietnam, via my grandfather who lived and worked in Vietnam and Cambodia, practising medicine, intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s while he was still doctoring in Australia, and continuously from about 1995 until returning to Melbourne after his stroke in 2008.

My grandfather fell so hard in love with Vietnam, it is difficult to even capture his commitment. His favourite place in all the world was Hue, and that's where he wanted to die (sadly, it wasn't to be). But he was full of stories about Saigon and Hanoi too, and when he visited Melbourne, he was always accompanied by Vietnamese friends. He and my grandmother spent many years assisting Vietnamese refugees resettle in Australia, and by assisting, I mean sponsoring, employing, taking families and students into their home to live, paying for weddings and funerals, and the like. I grew up helping Vietnamese families' kids master their English (I tutored several of them in high school) and, in return, not only developing an undying passion for Vietnamese food but also picking up scraps of culture and language that linger with me to this day.

So when I heard Emily Maguire speak at the Emerging Writers Festival in May about her forthcoming book, I flagged it immediately as one for me. I was a little trepidatious though, in the way you are when someone is taking on a beloved subject. (Akin to the combined anticipation and dread that many fans endured to the lead-up to releasing the first Lord of the Rings film, I imagine). I wondered if Maguire would do the setting justice, or if it would just be another mostly-failed Orientalist-exotic appropriation. All Maguire's other novels - of which I have only read one, and liked it, although I didn't love it - are unabashedly Sydney-centric novels. How was Maguire going to evoke Hanoi?

The short answer is - brilliantly. From the very first chapter, the sense of Hanoi as a place - as a character, an entity in its own right - is powerfully present. I think that Maguire wanted us to know and love Hanoi even before we got to know (and feel ... whatever for) her narrator and main protagonist, Australian ex-pat Mischa. Foreshadowing the main storyline in her reflection, Mischa talks about Hanoi with such longing that it's like a physical force:

Even now, sometimes when I wake, I lie with my eyes closed and trace the streets ijn my mind, searching out new short-cuts, getting lost and found. The city is always as it is after a thunderstorm, shiny and clean and steaming. Schoolgirls giggle and wring out their shirts and the street vendors glance at the sky before whipping away their makeshift tarpaulins. The air is thick and damp, smelling of rotting fruit and fish sauce and exhaust. I wander until my mental map runs out of streets and only then do I let myself wind back to the centre, back to the apartment overlooking the cathedral and the boy stretched on the bed, as cool and toxic as the rushing Red River.

The descriptions of the city are not only compelling, they are seamlessly woven into the narrative and its themes, not glibly, as a blank mirror for the emotional shenanigans going on within the ex-pat community (which would've been easy, cheap and ultimately unsatisfying), but in a way that brought the city flaring to life in my mind. Of course my response to Maguire's prose is both mediated and magnified by my own experience of the places she writes about, but for that very reason, I rate this book as triumphant in its achievement, because I am a harsh critic of books that sell places I love short, so for me to laud the sense of place in this text is high praise indeed. (One of the only other Western writers who I think writes Vietnam well is Robert Olen Butler, actually.)

As for the main storyline itself, I have read several reviews which questioned the capacity of the narrator, Mischa, to engage readers' emotional commitment, citing her as distant, muted, not altogether likeable. I agree that Mischa is all those things, but I could not disagree more with the idea that this makes her less compelling or less relatable as a character.

When I was reading this book the first time, I was thunderstruck by how utterly familiar Mischa seemed to me, how much I felt like I knew her, and the reason why is that she reminds me to an eerie degree of two of my friends who have survived and escaped long-term marital abuse. Down to the nuances of what she does and doesn't say, the ways she talks to people, the maintenance of the barriers, the craving for solitude, the embracing of being a stranger in a strange land - Mischa reads, to me, like an utterly real portrayal of a survivor. Knowledge of her background changed the way I read scenes like where Cal physically holds her down to have her shoes shined in Saigon, and how she reacts to the horrors of the Cu Chi tunnels. It made those scenes really blindly terrifying because I felt like I was in her head, even as the language remained (it always remains) cool, distant, like Mischa is looking in on herself, painting a picture of A Girl on a Shoe Shine Chair.

The central plot device is one of the oldest, most well-worn tropes of all; you could call it Star-Crossed Lovers, or An Unsuitable Affair, or maybe May-December. Essentially, Mischa has a fairly angst-ridden affair with the 18-year-old son of one of her ex-pat friends. The boy, Cal, has a Vietnamese-Australian mother and an Anglo-Australian dad, and has been raised in Sydney by his mother, grandfather and aunts, who fled Vietnam as refugees in the 1970s. He has never visited Vietnam until this trip to spend time with his dad in Hanoi.

Cal is an interesting, although not especially consistent, character; I think Maguire captures something very important about the mind journey of children with two different cultural traditions in their backgrounds, and in successfully drawing Cal as unmistakeably an Australian kid with unmistakeably Vietnamese heritage, she achieves something that very few writers seem to be able to do. She also gets right the hubris of 18 - Cal's moral certainties, his contempt for compromise, and, yes, his arrogance in his own physical perfection, epitomised by this exchange after Mischa has observed a gay mutual acquaintance scoping him out:

'But him checking you out. Does that make you uncomfortable?'
Cal cackled and slapped my back again ... 'Mischa,' he said. 'I'm used to being checked out. It never bothers me. People like to look at beautiful things, you know?'

Sometimes, though, I think Maguire wants Cal to be a lot more mature and experienced than he is (note here, I am not saying "than any 18 year old is" - I'm talking specifically about the core character Maguire has drawn). I get that she was trying to show the often head-snappingly rapid shifts between wisdom and toddlerdom that people can display as they are growing into their skins, but I think it strains credibility a few times. Anytime I find myself saying, "Hmmmm ... that sounds like an odd thing for Cal to say", I think the ball might have been dropped on internal consistency. That said, it is an extremely hard thing to write the perspective of a character that you are not only different from now, but never had many touchpoints of similarity with. I write children's fiction, and I find it easier to write smart-mouthed, ugly, clever, unpopular girls (which I was, once) than sporting-hero, popular, tough boys. (Although I try to write them, too).

The affair between Mischa and Cal, although the central plot device, was not the selling point of the book for me. I thought Maguire handled it well, and the sex scenes were done as well as anybody seems to do them (which is to say - I have very rarely read a sex scene in a mainstream novel that isn't a bit ho-hum at the end of the day. Nuance, tension and implication is almost always much more interesting to read than the actual this-bit-goes-with-that-bit parts). I found that my emotional investment in Mischa's happiness was much higher than (and in some ways, antithetical to) my investment in the resolution of the relationship.

That said, the book does achieve some incredibly poignant moments with the Mischa-Cal dyad, especially (isn't this often the case?) after it ends and Mischa returns to Sydney to nurse her sick sister. As the two start to correspond again, working through their tangled web, Cal writes a phrase that actually brought a lump to my throat:

I'm coming back to Sydney and I want to see you, but before I do I need to know - for real, Mish - are you still my em, because I will always, always be your anh.

And Mischa finally begins to reflect some of that clarity back to him as the novel draws to its close and she decides to return to Hanoi. She thinks about her family visiting her in Vietnam one day and about the complexity of relationships, but there is an affirmation of blue skies ahead:

By then, I will know what kinship terms to use and when I use them we will all know what we are to each other.

It is a wonderful book. I will read it again, whenever I'm in a Hanoi frame of mind, and would recommend it to anyone over 18 (who isn't my mother because she does not do either modern fiction or explicitness) without reservation.

This is post 29 in NaBloPoMo. 29 down, 1 to go! (And then a break :-)

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