After reading and reviewing two crime novels from international writers, I now come to my first non-crime book for the year. The book is ‘Fishing for Tigers’ by Australian writer Emily Macguire.
The story is about Mischa, an Australian woman in her mid-thirties who has been living in Hanoi for six years after fleeing a violent marriage. Mischa sees herself as a good person. Her Sunday catch ups with one of her ex pat friends consists of the friend confessing and de-briefing on her week’s events, while Mischa rarely contributes, believing she has nothing to feel guilty about.
Even though Mischa feels invisible as an older Western woman in a city where both local and expat men prefer young Vietnamese women, she relishes not having to explain herself to anyone.
Into this comfortable existence comes Cal, the eighteen year old Vietnamese-Australian son of Mischa’s Australian boss, Matthew. This is Cal’s first trip to the country that his grandparents fled with his mother and her sisters during the Vietnamese War. Cal’s experiences of Hanoi and of the ex pats, and his subsequent covert relationship with Mischa shakes Mischa’s view of herself. His need to provoke a true emotional response from her pushes her to re-examine her life and emotional disconnectedness.
I was keen to read this as I lived in Hanoi with my partner and small child in the mid-2000s. I think this experience and my many futile attempts to capture Hanoi in words had me on edge in the initial stages of the book. I felt the descriptions of Hanoi and of Misha’s life skimmed the surface and didn’t seem to come from a person who supposedly had lived there for six years. To me it sounded like someone who’d been there for a few months. I know much of this dissatisfaction came from my own writing failures and knowing how hard it is to scratch the surface of Vietnamese life. Much of it is unknowable and you end up with your own inadequate Western interpretation. Once I got past this initial stage and the relationship between Cal and Mischa took off, I relaxed and got into it.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and Emily Macguire’s writing is a joy to read. Her portrayal of Cal is particularly piercing. He is self-righteous and prickly, a typical eighteen year old, and his observations of the ex pat community are excoriating and, from my experiences, spot on. He struggles to reconcile his mother’s dislike of Vietnam and his grandfather’s silence with the city he is visiting – the city his father abandoned his family to live in.
‘Fishing with Tigers’ is a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable read.