Just as it’s easy for an actor to become “typecast” after playing a certain type of role, it’s easy for a writer to become associated with a particular type of book. Some writers are quite comfortable with their role, while others constantly make us question what “kind” of writer they are by trying something different with each book. Every so often, a writer who has become known for a specific type of book breaks the mold by going in a completely different direction. Results vary. Some readers are happily surprised; others are disappointed.Amy Tan has become successful and well-known as a writer of intimate, observant fiction about Chinese and Chinese-American women. Her novels often focus on mother-daughter relationships, and on the immigrant experience. Saving Fish from Drowning is a striking departure from such earlier works as The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, and I admire Tan for trying something so different.
Saving Fish is Tan’s own Cantebury Tales: a novel about twelve Americans on an ill-fated tour of Burma, narrated by the woman who organized the tour but unfortunately died before the trip took place. The dead woman, Bibi Chen, is able to be a completely omniscient narrator as she can now see into the thoughts of all her friends as well as the people they encounter along the way. The tourists disappear from the world’s view after they meet up with members of a remote tribe who believe that one of the tour group is the promised savior of their people — but Bibi sees what’s happening both at home and abroad, and reports on the whole story.
This novel plays with many ideas — especially the responsibility of outsiders confronted by a repressive regime like that of Burma/Myanmar. It also plays with our concepts of truth and fiction, a game that begins in the intriguing and deceptive preface to the novel. Most importantly, though, it introduces twelve distinct and intriguing main characters and allows their stories to weave in and out throughout a funny but also very serious tale.
I have read some bad reviews of Saving Fish from Drowning, with a common complaint being that Tan is just too ambitious here and the novel doesn’t adequately deal with all the problems it creates. I really enjoyed it. I got very caught up in the stories of the twelve tourists — none of whom is wholly likable but all of whom become very real and sympathetic throughout the story — as well as the story of the tribal people who end up “kidnapping” them. I was pulled forward, propelled by curiousity about what happened, towards a conclusion that mixes happy endings, tragedy, and the sense that life goes on even after catastrophe and cataclysm. Count me in as one reader who is glad Amy Tan moved outside her writerly comfort zone to try something different.
An interesting interview with Tan about the novel is posted here, although if you plan to read the book you should be aware that it contains spoilers.