Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai
Why I read: Intriguing and futuristic tale with feminist themes, Jan 17 Book club read.
Book blurb: “”Salt Fish Girl” is the mesmerizing tale of an ageless female character who shifts shape and form through time and place. Told in the beguiling voice of a narrator who is fish, snake, girl, and woman – all of whom must struggle against adversity for survival – the novel is set alternately in nineteenth-century China and in a futuristic Pacific Northwest.
At turns whimsical and wry, “Salt Fish Girl” intertwines the story of Nu Wa, the shape-shifter, and that of Miranda, a troubled young girl living in the walled city of Serendipity circa 2044. Miranda is haunted by traces of her mother’s glamourous cabaret career, the strange smell of durian fruit that lingers about her, and odd tokens reminiscient of Nu Wa. Could Miranda be infected by the Dreaming Disease that makes the past leak into the present?
Framed by a playful sense of magical realism, “Salt Fish Girl” reveals a futuristic Pacific Northwest where corporations govern cities, factory workers are cybernetically engineered, middle-class labour is a video game, and those who haven’t sold out to commerce and other ills must fight the evil powers intent on controlling everything. Rich with ancient Chinese mythology and cultural lore, this remarkable novel is about gender, love, honour, intrigue, and fighting against oppression.”
The story alternates between two settings: 19th century China and a future Pacific Northwest, it spirals around, back and forth between the two tales. A deity, Nu-Wa creates human beings. She chooses to become one of them and falls in love with a girl who sells salt fish at the market. Miranda is a young girl living in the 2040s, who has a strange affliction that her skin smells of durian fruit. The story is a portrayal of both their lives, seeped in fantasy and magic realism.
Packed full of powerful imagery that has you smelling and tasting as well as visualising the world within the pages. Lai’s writing is beautiful as the words flow from the page. Weirdly beautiful. The plot itself was muddled and often lacked logical sense as it jumped around. Several times I had to re-read sections to connect the dots. But this fit into the aura of mystery that the book has. It was highly readable and captivated me to the end although loose ends remain. You are given glimpses of world-building, of a very imaginative future woven in the tale. The ideas are wonderful and compelling, often surreal but not always making sense or flitting well together. The creationist theme which ran throughout the novel from the first mythology to the genetic engineering was wonderfully interlaced through the different sections. Science ethics, disability, corporate power, feminism and many elements of interesting sci-fi are introduced however many ideas lacked substance as they are not fully explored.
Overall I’d recommend reading the book for the beautiful writing that engages your senses and emotions and the imagination within.
I’d recommend to anyone who likes: science fiction, fantasy, science ethics, feminism, magic realism,
“This story is about stink, after all, a story about rot, about how life grows out of the most fetid-smelling places.” ― Larissa Lai,
Paperback: 269 pages
Publisher: Thomas Allen Publishers (30 Aug. 2012)