Ghost Novel Review: Saving Fish from Drowning

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

I so wanted to love this book.

I loved the idea—a novice ghost follows her museum friends on an ill-fated tour through Myanmar. I loved Tan’s trademark fusing of myth to narrative, particularly the satiric vignette detailing how one goes about saving a fish from drowning. I loved the comforting heft of the book as I settled beneath my Tree of Life quilt and snapped on the bedside lamp.

What I didn’t love was the book. The writing lacked both luster and momentum.

I think I made it to page fifty-two.

I made it that far only because of my friend Laurie. Once, while reading The Poisonwood Bible, I felt so discouraged and confused I wanted to chuck the novel into the nearest Goodwill receptacle. Laurie said, “Give it fifty pages.”

I did, and she was right. The Poisonwood Bible is a masterful piece of writing.*

Not so Saving Fish from Drowning, despite the diligently applied Laurie test. Reading the prose—so thickly filtered via a self-indulgent narrator—was akin to diving for freshwater pearls in congealed gravy. One could drown. Or come up empty handed.

Instead of this book by Tan, I recommend her novel The Joy Luck Club for pure reading pleasure. The intertexture of myth and reality, past and present, is so compelling, you can return again and again. You won’t find any ghosts in these pages except perhaps for the metaphorical variety.

*For those interested in the craft of writing, The Poisonwood Bible is one of the two best books I’ve found for the treatment of voice. The other is The God of Small Things.


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