Australian author Sallis (Hiam, 1998, etc.) gives a powerful take on the ferocity of mother love as she tracks a young woman’s flight from her island home to Yemen to absorb a new language and culture.
Lian is the daughter of Vietnamese refugee Phi-Van, a so-called “silkie” who appeared almost miraculously from the sea and married Nev, whose farming family had lived for generations on the South Australian island off the coast of Adelaide. Aloof, suspicious Phi-Van, cut off from her past, forms a strange, unsettled relationship with her reserved daughter built on mutual distrust and jealousy: Lian strangles her mother’s beloved puppy when she recognizes the dog gets more loving attention from Phi-Van than she does. As Lian grows up, cocooned on the island, she’s afflicted by her mother’s poisonous, unhappy spirit and takes off to study Arabic in Yemen, believing that to thrive she needs to assume a new identity and never come back. While Lian immerses herself in the strange new culture of Sanaa, where women are rendered publicly invisible by having to don the lugubrious hijab and balto, she cherishes the holy spirit of the ancient language of the Koran and finds welcome communal closeness among the women, whose festive mingling at private parties reminds her of frolicking sea lions she used to watch while diving. She also meets a young religious student, Ibrahim, who truly loves her. Yet even in exile Lian is pursued by the devouring spirit of her mother, who will not be appeased until Lian reckons with her memories: “the wet slap slap slap of Vietnam, the spaces and faces she had never let in.” Peppered throughout the narrative are episodes involving Abdallah from Arabian Nights, reflecting the ageless nature of an ancient culture, though Sallis’s work is strong and evocative enough without them.
A gracefully wrought reflection on identity within exile.