Tinling Choong's FireWife left me with somewhat mixed feelings.
There is of course the usual burst of pride. Here is a Malaysian born-author (now a US resident) who is published by one of the biggest publishers in the world (Doubleday). She's also netted The Henry Miller Award for the best literary sex scene. Those of you who are eternally crying, why do Malaysians only write historical novels should be greatly cheered by this very contemporary look at women's lives across the globe. This is not a "Malaysian" novel, but it is a novel with a strong Malaysian protagonist, and which features a multi-ethnic cast of characters.
Nin, is a Chinese Malaysian, settled in America, married an Indian guy, Mahar, and is an architect working for multinational restaurant chain Every Day is Friday which is rapidly expanding round the globe. She has planned to take a five-month break from her work to embark on a project, a photographic exploration of women in different parts of the world, an internal as an external journey. Unfortunately her project is subverted when her bosses ask her to combine business trips with her travels, mapping out for her the cities she must visit.
The biggest issue Nin must come to terms with is her guilt over her sister's death who drown in her grandmother's tapioca house when both were small kids living in "Kinta".
Nin's story is interspersed with words of the women she photographs, among them Laksmi, an Indian woman burned to death by her in-laws; Zimi in Taipei who sells advertising space on her forehead; Ut a child prostitute talking to a fly in the window of a brothel in Bangkok; Table who allows her body to be used as a sushi-platter in Tokyo; and Marie in Amsterdam, whose conflicted feelings about childhood sexual abuse are replayed in a dialogue between her breasts. Although most of the women have been exploited or damaged by men, there is a monologue by a radiantly happy Wing in Singapore, in love and ready to follow her dreams.
I was fascinated by all these women and their relationships to their bodies and would actually have liked more of them: the book succeeds best for me when it is most rooted. All women speak with the same voice - perhaps the stories are Nin's spun when she looks at the photographs. Certainly her own story is echoed by theirs in places.
While the theme of the book and the Asian-American focus might remind readers of authors like Amy Tan, the writing has an energy and playfulness which makes one think of Rushdie and Kiran Desai. The language is also richly sensual as you can see for yourself in this extract and the passage that won the award.
Now I am a sucker for poetic-prose as I've probably said before, and I did generally like the stream-of-consciousness breathlessness of the narration ... but there were times when I felt the style could have been pared down so the author could just, please, get on with the storytelling.
Choong uses fable to bind the stories together and give the book its central theme. The image of fire love (representing passion, sexual energy, spontaneity) vs water love (steady, comfortable, sensible) works well as a metaphor which helps us to understand Nin's unrest and decisions, although I wasn't sure how it meshed with all the stories.
The creation myth at the end (in a section tongue-in-cheekly called Prologue Misplaced) seemed a little forced to me, as if the author were thinking Oh my God how on earth do I tie all this together?? Bitty and disjointed, the novel never manages to be a sum of all its parts and I'm left feeling confused and unsatisfied.
Tinling will be in KL at the end of the month and you will have a chance to meet her. There's more about her and her book on her website.
Other reviews: Yale Daily News, TheDartmouth.com and on Msiagirl's blog.