Fishing for Tigers is a finely written, original and compelling novel about a thirty-something woman in Vietnam, Mischa, who embarks on a relationship with the son of a friend, Cal, who is half her age. Until she meets him, her only passion is for Hanoi, her chaotic haven from life’s misadventures. Cal’s beautiful body, half Vietnamese and half Australian, is the focus of much narrative attention, but Mischa’s physical love for this boy-man formed only one element of what I found striking about this book. Maguire’s writing expresses the many forms that love takes, how they compete for attention, how they sneak up on her narrator, knocking her off balance with their unexpected force.
Love is difficult to write about without lapsing into sentimentality, which is a kind of exploitation of the reader, a manipulation. Yet there is something very appealing about a narrative that wears its heart on its sleeve. Human beings do love; it shapes us. Why not explore how that works? Fishing for Tigers reminded me in its willingness to do this of Debra Adelaide’s A Household Guide to Dying. In the details of the things we do for each other and of the shape of the hole certain people leave in characters’ lives, human beings are given their full significance. I suppose that is what I mean by love and the convincing expression of it is a key pleasure for me in reading fiction.
Mischa, who has kept her desires contained since fleeing an abusive marriage, is bewildered by her intense attraction to the dramatically unsuitable Cal. She attempts as an act of resistance to separate her own feelings from that of her body, which she calls ‘just another opiate-addicted hunk of meat that would do anything to get its fix.’ But how is this distinction between body and self to be made? Every part of her body wants every part of his. She concludes: ‘If the parts of which I am made are so convinced, then what is left of me to protest?’ (153)
The difficulty of this kind of love is its selfishness. It does not heed the requirements of other loves, of her friend Matthew, Cal’s father, or of her family in Australia, who need her. Learning of her sister Margi’s cancer she begins to pray in the form of the repeated word: please. But then, immediately afterwards: ‘I don’t want to go back, I thought, and my panic was replaced with shame’ (165-6).
Cal is not too young to know of the complexities of love. Talking of his grandfather, who came to Australia as a refugee of the Vietnam war, he tells Mischa: ‘“Sometimes grief catches you off guard – that’s what Grandpa says. He’ll be going about his day, everything fine and then bam he’s curled up in bed, can’t even speak. When he gets like that, I take my homework in and do it on the floor of his room just so he won’t be alone”’ (169). The child of a traumatised family shows his love in the gift of his silent presence, because what is there to say to someone who lost almost everyone?
Mischa’s phone rings and Cal tells her to leave it. He requires her presence, and later she sees that it was her sister Mel, reminding her of her own responsibilities to family, ‘but it was far too late to call back’ (169). Many times in Fishing for Tigers love is expressed as many-stranded and competing. Mischa, who lost her parents young and married disastrously, is continually buffeted by its demands, not assertive enough to prioritise them, or to stake a claim for her own space in the world from which to respond to others. It is clichéd to say that we have to love ourselves to love anyone else, but good novels often display the intricacies of simple messages.
Love for this isolated ex-patriate is shot through her memories of how life was. Here is how Mischa remembers Margi, whose illness she must face:
This woman who had known me my entire life, who had sworn to keep me safe and had wept with rage and threatened murder when she found out she had failed. This woman who was once a girl who had barred me from her bedroom, which was blue and grown-up unlike my babyish pink one, and who would go weeks without speaking to me and then all of a wonderful sudden gather me up in her jasmine-smelling arms and kissing may face all over (206).
Her memories of her sister recede into a past in which love overwhelms resentment. That sudden physical urge of an older girl to smother her baby sister with kisses seems true and sweet and yet I have not seen it written about before. It comes as an urge after weeks of silence. Love in this novel breaks in waves. The force of love is not constant or predictable or usually even manageable.
When connected to sex, love can be shameful. Mischa, back in Sydney with her sisters, remembers Cal in a web of older memories that bring pain and a sense of complicity, denial, sorrow and anger:
Cal is like remembering the way the dry cleaner giggled at the rip in my wedding dress and the doctor examining my ‘jogging injury’ asked no questions about the fingerprint bruises on my upper-arm. Thinking of Cal makes me bitter and regretful and ashamed and defiant. God, of course I miss him. Savagely (293).
When we discussed this book at book group, a description used several times was that it was ‘real’, like ‘true’, an interestingly ambiguous term to use about fiction. Its ‘realness’ for me was in its distinction between how we would like things to be and how they are. We would like to keep the ways we love separate. We would like to be strong enough to make wise choices about who we love. Fishing for Tigers makes a case not for what love should be but what it is. In a lovely final metaphor, the book’s closing passages once more show the intricacies of our connections to one another – the continual engagement required to give each person in our lives their proper weight and meaning.
Cross-posted by Belinda Castles on her blog, No Going to London.
Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire
Pan Macmillan 2012