Fishing for Tigers
I have mentioned previously that one of my favourite family traditions is receiving the 3-4 books that my parents give us each Christmas. The little pile of books is always the last thing under the Christmas tree that we open, and each family member shows the other what book has been received (we usually swap books once we’ve finished reading our own).
This Christmas, I received a copy of “Fishing for Tigers” by Emily Maguire. I gobbled it up in less than a day and a half, which was quite a feat given that I was on a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne at the time. No, I did not read as I was driving, as tempting as that might have seemed.
Maguire is an Australian novelist, and “Fishing for Tigers” is her fourth novel. The book is set in steamy Hanoi and primarily focusses on the secret affair between Mischa, a 35 year old Australian expatriate, and Cal, the 18 year old Vietnamese-Australian son of Mischa’s closest friend in Hanoi. Maguire examines the complicated physical and emotional relationship between Mischa and Cal (whose moods waver between mature young adult and sulky teenager) in the context of a Western expatriate community seeking to lose itself in Vietnam’s calm and chaos without actually having to acknowledge the realities of everyday life there.
Visiting Vietnam for the first time, Cal’s wide-eyed and sensitive exploration of Hanoi compels Mischa to re-examine her relationship with Hanoi and its residents, as well as her relationship with her Australian family. She becomes increasingly uncomfortable about her interactions with Vietnamese society in the strange, isolated and post-colonialist expatriate dynamic in which she exists, and eventually makes some life changing decisions as a consequence.
Maguire writes evocatively of Hanoi’s cultural intensity and grubby beauty, and examines the morality of Mischa and Cal’s relationship in a subtly compelling manner. She also deals with the complexities of identity, desire and freedom through the use of beautifully phrased prose.
While the main relationship dealt with in “Fishing with Tigers” is that between Mischa and Cal, the underlying love affair is that with Hanoi – its dirty, busy streets, beautiful folklore and extraordinary history. I was transported back to Hanoi immediately upon reading the opening paragraphs, and I am so grateful to my mother – not only for the actual gift of this wonderful, thought provoking book, but also for knowing instinctively how much I would enjoy it because of my ongoing passion for this remarkable city.