"It was not my fault." Socialite Bibi Chen begins her story of how
her friends became lost in Burma with that disclaimer. Bibi, with
her multicolored braid and strong opinions, is speaking from beyond
the grave. She has been murdered, but that doesn't stop her from
voicing her take on her funeral, her friends' situations, and
everything else in the world.
The trip Bibi arranged to take with her friends to Burma will still
happen. When her circle wishes for Bibi to join them "in spirit,"
she can't resist the invitation. One great side effect of being
dead, she discovers, is that her emotions, so flat in life, are now
lush and full-bodied --- all the better to paint a vivid picture as
the story develops.
We know from the outset that Bibi's traveling companions will
vanish in Burma. Part of the fun is guessing at and then
discovering the chain of events that leads to their disappearance.
We develop one strong suspicion after another. For example, Wendy
Brookhyser, an activist, is one of the people along on the trip. Is
she to blame for the problems her group runs into? Wendy plans to
speak with the people under cover of being a fun-seeking tourist.
She may take the information she's gathered and publish it,
although she's aware that journalists are forbidden to visit Burma.
If discovered gathering anti-government information, she could well
be imprisoned forever.
A love story threads through this book. Harry, the star of a
television show featuring dog training, yearns for the elegant
Marlena. Fate intervenes between the two repeatedly and sometimes
humorously: there's an incident involving candles and flammable
mosquito netting, illness, Marlena's daughter's puppy, and
kidnapping. And then there's Harry's well-known attraction to a
revolving cast of much younger women.
Since Bibi is dead and has access to all characters' innermost
thoughts, she gives an unusual all-knowing interpretation of
events. For example, in one scene a man translates his love
interest's reaction to him as "castrating," when in fact she
actually is concentrating on the cramping dysentery she's beginning
to experience deep within her bowels.
SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING is by turns a romance, an adventure
story, a comedy, and a bit of educational documentary. Amy Tan
weaves a fascinating tale of this band of fish-out-of-water
Americans and their perceptions of life in other countries, which
is so often ridiculously askew. The plot twists never fail to be
surprising, and touches of the surreal (a primitive tribe watching
television in the middle of a jungle and a jungle-based reality
show called "Darwin's Fittest") are weirdly laugh-out-loud funny.
Bibi's narration tends to wander off-course at times, which is
mostly entertaining but occasionally frustrating, and made the pace
of the story uneven. I also felt that some of the large cast of
characters, such as Harry's buddy Moff, was not fleshed out as well
as Harry and others.
Despite these minor quibbles, SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING is an
excellent read, managing to keep the reader mesmerized through the
nearly 500 pages.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011
Saving Fish From Drowning