Details: (c)Amy Tan 2005; Pub 2005 Fourth Estate; ISBN 0-00-721989-X
Verdict: Saving fish from drowning is a better than average middle-brow novel.
Reasons for reading it: I like Tan's writing, although she has the flaw of writing the same book over and over again.
How it came into my hands: The anglophone community's book pool.
Saving fish from drowning is not in fact yet another reworking of the Tan's single plot where a young Chinese-American woman sorts out her troubled relationship with her mother, intercut with harrowing stories from the mother's life in and escape from revolutionary China. Instead, it is about a group of tourists who get kidnapped in the Burmese jungle. It's a good thing that Tan has decided to branch out, and she is still a strong writer tackling unfamiliar territory. But this perhaps stands out from the crowd less than the various reworkings of The joy luck club.
Tan does tend to draw a lot of minor characters who are memorable though painted with broad strokes. With SFfD this is exaggerated by the set-up of a group of near strangers forced by circumstances into a dramatic situation; it's very easy for them to be stock characters, especially since the group is rather obviously Diverse. Now, it makes sense that a character like the narrator, Bibi Chen, a rich, Chinese-American art patron living in San Francisco, would have friends who were not all young, white, het males. But it does feel a bit like there's a dynamic of "the gay one" and "the black one" and "the British one" and "the Chinese one" and "the child" and "the teenager" and a handful of default people. It's not bad, by any means, but Tan doesn't quite pull off the trick of having sympathetic characters presented through the viewpoint of an unsympathetic narrator. (Minor point, but it really bugs me to keep seeing the trope of "all the men did X, while all the women and Bennie [the gay one!] did Y".)
The viewpoint is weird, and in some ways it adds originality and zest to the book and in some ways it doesn't quite work. The framing story about the author speaking to a woman who claims to be in communication with the dead narrator, and transcribing a story that she couldn't possibly have known, feels really anachronistic in a 21st century novel. But the situation of Bibi's ghost accompanying the group gives you a narrator who is effectively omniscient, but who is also a character in the story with her own opinions and viewpoint. It works because Bibi is a strong character, very humanly flawed, and the bits of her own story, which floats into the typical Amy Tan territory about her childhood in China and experiences as an immigrant, are definitely worth reading, but it also rings oddly because it's simultaneously an old-fashioned and an eccentric way of doing POV. It makes me wonder how the book would fit into papersky's classification system.
The book is effective in getting across its message about Burma. Bibi at some point remarks that no-one wants to read a story of unadulterated tragedy and horror and misery, and I would say SFfD succeeds in striking a balance between portraying the suffering of the Burmese under their oppressive regime, without sensationalizing it or simply providing something that is too heavy for the reader to take. The book doesn't hammer its moral message, (well, except in the title and the exposition of it) but the message is definitely there, that the satisfying conclusion of the nice frothy adventure story where all the main characters get out of Burma safely and live happily ever after, doesn't actually say anything about the situation of the Burmese people left behind. So in that respect, it's getting the information across to an audience who probably wouldn't read anything overtly political. And there's some nice satire of how the American media can be all over the latest sensational tragedy of brutality in foreign parts, and then move on to the next big thing without making any real lasting difference.
I think the most comparable book is not Tan's other work, but Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. SFfD is not quite of that standard, but it's similar in that it's presenting some complex and painful stuff about colonialism and its aftermath, packaged as something that is relatively light and upbeat and readable. Although it's by no means Tan's best writing, it's a book that very much should exist.