08 October 2006

Saving Fish From Drowning, by Amy Tan

October 08 2006 (05:36:00)

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005. 474 pages.

Amy Tan's characters are always drawn with exquisite skill. Tan's people and their stories are believable and genuine -- even when they are completely fantastic.

Saving Fish From Drowning does not lack fantasy: Its narrator, Bibi Chen, is dead. The story of her friends' trip to Burma, their kidnapping by Karen villagers, the chaotic search for them, are told from her perspective -- that of a ghost, the unquiet spirit of the woman who was to have been their tour guide who accompanies her friends on their trip as she was meant to in life. This omniscient observer makes for a unique sort of first-person/third-person narrative.

I don't mean to make it sound as if this construct were unwieldy or in the least bit intrusive. On the contrary, it is artfully done, entertaining, and comes off as the most natural thing in the world. Of course, Tan has delved into the invention of characters from the afterlife before.

The story of Bibi's friends unlucky adventure in Burma allows us to see these privileged Americans against the backdrop of one of the most benighted countries on the planet where they might actually find themselves. Tan has done a good job of illustrating Burma's plight. She does not sugar-coat the misery of Burma's citizens nor the heavy-handed totalitarian military dictators that rule them. As contemporary commentary this novel is excellent, but this does not detract from its literary excellence or simple entertainment value.

I have again been delighted by an Amy Tan novel.

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