An ironic title. What does it mean to save fish from drowning? This thought caught my imagination as I browsed the shelves of ‘The Bookworm’ – an English library/bookstore/cafe in Beijing. Having read and enjoyed Amy Tan in the past, I figured this would be a guaranteed good read. So I bought my first “Beijing” souvenir.
It turned out to be a lot different than I expected. Not to say that it’s not worth the read; it just wasn’t what I anticipated from Amy. The back cover of the book describes itself as a work of historical fiction, but when you read the foreword, Amy explains her inspiration for the book, which is rooted in superstition as much as history:
One rainy day in Manhattan, she took shelter from a storm in the American Society for Psychical Research’s archives, where she explored some manuscripts of “Automatic Writing,” which is done purportedly by individuals who are being spoken to directly by a deceased person’s spirit. She stumbled upon a memoir-style manuscript attributed to the spirit of Bibi Chen, a woman Amy had actually met before in San Francisco. Ms. Chen had died under mysterious circumstances that were never fully explained. Saving Fish from Drowning is the byproduct of that manuscript.
As interesting as the subject matter is, I think that’s why I didn’t like the book as well as Amy’s other works. At times, her voice and style seem compromised while she strives to hold to the original manuscript as much as possible.
Despite my own opinions, the story is still complex and captivating. Spoken from Bibi Chen’s point of view, the story begins with her mysterious death and follows the travels of a tour group she had organized and was to have lead through China and Myanmar soon after. Neither Bibi Chen’s death nor the disappearance of the tour group were ever explained by authorities, adding mysterious intrigue to the story.
The novel also explores the cultures of Southern China and Myanmar, the religious views and superstitions that drive people, and some common (and crazy uncommon) mishaps that arise from cultural misunderstandings between locals and foreigners. All in all, it’s an interesting story, but not my favorite of Ms. Tan’s.
Total number of pages: 472, FoA pages: 24,899 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus)