Completed 7/17/2020, Reviewed 7/17/2020
I really like Larissa Lai’s writing. She writes lush prose, making her novels a lovely and readable experience. I last encountered her with Salt Fish Girl. This book is her first novel. It has three narratives, that of the Fox which in Chinese folktales is a trickster spirit that can inhabit the bodies of women, that of a ninth century Taoist nun who is also a famous poet who was executed for the murder her maid, and that of a young Chinese woman living in Vancouver, BC who is not very good at relationships. There was no real plot to the book. It’s kind of a slice of life novel interspersed with folklore and magical realism.
The primary story is about Artemis, who was adopted by white parents. She goes through a series of relationships with both men and women, but her choices are not very good. She seems to grasp onto people who like her without determining if they are good for her. Her story is really about being young, Asian, and lesbian in 1990’s Canada, during the time of supposed tolerance and inclusivity, and trying to find your way in life. The secondary story is Fox telling about key moments in his life as it approaches the age of one thousand. It was there when the Taoist nun supposedly killed her maid. And it was there when Artemis discovered one of her friends is murdered. Finally, there’s the story of the nun, but it is rather short compared with other narratives.
I really liked this book, but I didn’t really identify with Artemis. When it comes to friends and lovers, her picker is broken. It reminded me a little of a Gen X film from the 90’s, where everyone is disaffected and struggling to find themselves. Artemis’ first relationship is a with a guy who doesn’t want to have sex with her. Her second relationship is with a woman who is very toxic, and it’s pretty evident from the beginning she is just using her. You just cringe as they hang out more and more. Artemis is the victim in all these relationships, and she doesn’t see it. As part of her struggle with her identity, she also feels that she doesn’t have a home, no matter where she lives. And when she does find an apartment that she starts to feel comfortable in, the building is sold and she’s evicted. On top of that, one of her exes trashes the place. It’s all a depressing journey. It’s beautifully told, but definitely not a positive one.
The narrative of the Fox is taken from Chinese folklore tales. I struggled a bit with it as I did not have any familiarity with this trickster spirit. Its story is also a sort of ghost story. It infuses its soul into that of recently dead women and haunts the living. In one tale, it reanimates the mother of several daughters who killed her accidently thinking she was an evil spirit, only to live with them for another year before the Fox reveals itself, driving the daughters to suicide. It’s not a pleasant story but demonstrates what the Fox is capable of.
I give this book four stars out of five. The only trouble I had with it was the middle part which kind of dragged as I was looking for a plot. Once I realized there really was none, I was able to enjoy the rest of it. This is not really a happy book. It’s about racial identity and racism, sexuality identity and homophobia, and trying the break the cycle of being a victim. But it is beautifully written and enjoyable to read despite the seriousness of the issues. I wasn’t surprised to find that Lai has also published two books of poetry.