saving fish from drowning

Book: Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Review: Jeriann Ireland

Age/Genre: Adult fiction

Preferred Reading Setting: In a hammock or under a tree. This would be a great book to read while traveling, if you have long stretches of time to dedicate to a new read.

Reading Accessories/Accoutrements: Jasmine tea

Even though I love books, I don’t often look too hard at thrift store book sections. They’re mostly full of Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, westerns, and the Twilight saga. I much prefer used book stores for my second-hand reading finds. But once in a while, something jumps out at me. A couple of months ago, Saving Fish from Drowning caught my eye, for two reasons: first, the book is pretty large, and second, Amy Tan’s name is prominently displayed on the binding.

I haven’t read a lot of Amy Tan, but I remember reading Joy Luck Club in school, and I’ve always had a slight interest in reading more of her books. I read the blurb on the inside, and thought, “This looks really interesting. Potentially boring, but probably worth reading.”

As soon as I started reading this book, I knew I had made the right choice. The premise is that the author stumbled upon the museum of psychical research in Manhattan on a stormy day. There, she found automatic writings – writings that are supposedly written by spirits through mediums. One of the transcripts was of a woman whose name the author recognized from social circles in San Francisco. She was so interested in the story that she looked up the medium to learn more about Bibi Chen and the events surrounding her death.

Bibi Chen, the narrator of Saving Fish from Drowning, is recently deceased. She died under mysterious circumstances before she could take her friends on a planned trip to China and Burma (also known as Myanmar- the names are used interchangeably in the book, which takes place in the year 2000). Burma is very difficult for tourists to visit, and Bibi Chen has planned meticulously to make the trip a success. Her friends decide to find a new tour leader and take their trip as planned. Bibi’s spirit accompanies them. She believes she has been endowed with some of the powers of The Buddha, as she is able to discern the thoughts of the people she is around. This makes her a great narrator, as she can tell us the inner monologues of the other characters. We know when they are lying and what their motivations are without being taken out of the story. Bibi tells us how the group strays from her plans and exactly why and how everything falls apart.

Saving Fish from Drowning explores the politics of Burma/Myanmar from several different angles. Our tour group is 12 characters, and there are many other major characters as well. This does get confusing at times, as it can be hard to keep track of everyone. I had put this down for a week and had to go back and reread some character introductions to figure out who was who. That being said, I loved this book. Because of the nature of the narrator, we get to see everyone’s thoughts on the political and social issues explored.

I will be reading this book again one day, as I think a lot of the themes will be easier to see after a second read. The title, for example, is explained in a quote in the front of the book as well as discussed by the tour group. When first reading the book, the title doesn’t seem like it has a lot to do with the plot. After contemplation, I saw links to the book’s larger themes about how governments and news media operate.

The tour group is made up of a bunch of conflicting personalities. Being such a large cast, not everyone receives equal coverage and there were certain characters who I felt did not add much to the plot. One character’s wrap up at the end was the most interesting part featuring him in the entire book. It showed more about his character than we’d seen before and seemed a bit like a short story with little to do with the rest of the book.

After reading Saving Fish from Drowning, I wanted to read about some of the context around the book’s writing. I read interviews by Amy Tan and independent reviews of the book. I was surprised to see a large number of bad reviews. People who love Amy Tan’s writing were disappointed because this didn’t cover Chinese Mother-Daughter relationships as closely as her other books. They got lost with all the characters and didn’t relate to them as much as characters in her other books.

I disagree with a lot of this criticism. As mentioned above, I definitely saw flaws in the book, but I greatly enjoyed it. I don’t think an author should be limited to one theme, and I think she still explored how people’s culture affected the way they interact in the world. Several of the main characters were Chinese, we just happened to have many main characters with other backgrounds as well. We saw a nuanced view of different people’s entitlements and there were great background stories for a lot of the characters. Not all the characters are easy to feel sympathetic toward, but they are given reasons for their behavior. There are no real villains in our main cast, and even the political villains are given decent motivations and explanation.

While the length of this book can be intimidating, the story, characters, and themes are interesting. Definitely check it out if you want a thoughtful read with intriguing forays into the spirit world.

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