You can’t tell a story forward, not really, says Mischa Reese in Emily Maguire’s recently released Fishing for Tigers. It’s a statement that’s as true as it is telling, particularly when you learn the context of the quote: Mischa’s stroll through a temple with the teenage son of one of her friends.
I was content in his company, and I was innocent.
The answers someone might give to the question what is happening? as opposed to what was happening? are bound to be utterly divergent. It’s not just the distance afforded by hindsight that’s at work here, but also the changes in who we are as individuals, and the weird and scrappy way that we piece together our memories.
Memory, after all, is both a narrative and an argument, and recollection requires analysis (and allows subterfuge at that) in a way that reportage doesn’t. Perhaps this is part of the reason why I’m drawn to novels written in a reflective manner: the added temporal distance provides not just an interesting lens of narrative depth, but also of the character growth and change that has occurred because of the events depicted in the book, and also after those events.
However, this same temporal distance can also be stunningly misleading. When there’s a gap between the then and now, it’s inevitable that the question will arise regarding what is actually true and what is merely perceived to be true–and whether there’s really much of a difference between the two. And this is where things become fascinating for me as a reader: I get to become a sleuth as I read.
Two of my favourite novels this year, The Glamour by Christopher Priest and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, take this long-term recollective approach to their storytelling process; both also give us unreliable narrators. So too does Fishing for Tigers, and it’s difficult to tell what, if anything, of the book can be taken as truth.
Mischa has lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since fleeing an abusive marriage some five years ago, and since then has existed in that strange purgatorial way of expats. With the length of her stay indefinite, she doesn’t see the point of truly settling in in any part of her life. She has a job, not a career, and one that could be readily exchanged for something else; she doesn’t speak the language beyond a few basic niceties; and despite the constant pressure from her friends she’s resisted buying a motorbike, getting around instead like a tourist might.
“I had become a woman without a self. For years I had spoken in sentences that weren’t. In work and food and housing I’d got not what I wanted but what I could ask for. My opinions and insights became as childish as the fragments of language I had to express them. My foreigner’s defence of smiling blandness bled into my English-speaking interactions. The thing I got that I didn’t ask for would do and the thing I wanted but didn’t get I could do without. The friends I had were those easily kept. They could have been anyone. I could have been anyone…”
Mischa seems to want to lose herself in the anonymity of a foreign city, and yet the affair she embarks on with 18-year-old Cal is at odds with this. The way, too, that the affair unfolds, and her justifications for becoming caught up in it, strike the reader as not necessarily veracious. Mischa paints herself as a wide-eyed Bambi at the beginning of the narrative, but this isn’t the case—but truly, what of it, particularly given that her male friends are doing exactly the same thing with young Vietnamese girls? As an oldie in my late twenties, the thought of having it off with a teenager is a touch excruciating, but the affair is consensual, and it’s legal at that.
So what is the problem? I think it’s two-fold. First, Mischa is an older woman having an affair with a young man rather than the typical older man, younger woman scenario; and that Cal, who’s half Vietnamese, identifies and is identified by others as an Australian, not a local. As Mischa’s expat friends have made patently clear, there’s a vast gap in the value placed on a westerner and that placed upon a native Vietnamese: the latter are seen as a commodity to be exploited, a faceless group who are scarcely human to this group of self-styled royalty who have determined to live on the fringes of a society such that they can make of it, and take from it, whatever they will without any thought for the consequences. Her relationship is the human embodiment of the way that westerners treat a country such as Vietnam.
There’s certainly a truth to Mischa’s explanation of the relationship narrative, and yet there’s a neatness to Mischa’s styling of it as well, one that suggests that perhaps there’s a touch of revisionism at work here. Despite her professions of innocence, Mischa seems to revel in the verboten nature of the relationship, in part because Cal’s passionate, questioning ways force her to connect with the world at long last and to ponder her place and her purpose. And yet, there’s another event later on in the book involving her family that does exactly the same thing—but interestingly enough, Mischa remains removed from this, life-changing and potentially devastating though it is. Perhaps she is not quite the innocent she would paint herself as.
With its hedonism and excess, its richly depicted locale and its depiction of a relationship featuring a shifting power balance, the book as a whole is redolent of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, although it lacks the brutally precise dialogue and the cutting narrative: Fishing for Tigers often falls into didactic finger-wagging, and has a tendency to explain and reiterate what is already strikingly obvious.
Still, it’s easy enough to imagine Fitzgerald’s Divers drinking up with Mischa and her friends as they engage as superficially as they can with their environment, celebrating their irrelevance and their purposelessness. Even though Mischa is a part of this, towards the end of the book she skewers her friends, and brings into question the truth of her own narrative with the following:
“My Hanoi friends thought that what I did with Cal was out of character, but how would they know? How would I? It may have been the first in-character thing I had done in my life.”
Rating: (very good)
Your turn: do you like reading about unreliable narrators?
With thanks to Macmillan Australia for the review copy
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