FISH IN EXILE by Vi Khi Nao

FISH IN EXILE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A couple mourns the loss of their children in unusual ways in this lyrical, mythology-infused tale.

Ethos and Catholic, the lead characters in this beguiling debut novel, have lost their twin children. The circumstances of the deaths aren’t made clear till more than halfway through the story, but early on it’s clear they’re suffering. Ethos has left his job as a schoolteacher, and as his thoughts grow abstract (he imagines eating the moon), he begins constructing a massive aquarium; Catholic, meanwhile, has her tubes tied and designs outfits for the fish that will occupy the tanks. “One can’t be depressed if one is engaged in physical activity,” Ethos says, but his actions prove him wrong, and the novel’s trajectory is toward the couple’s difficult reckoning with their loss. Though the story has an arc, Nao resists telling it straight: she seems determined to avoid every cliché of domestic tragedy. She accomplishes that in part by shifting to a plainspoken but poetic register that emphasizes allegory and abstraction: “We must be made of sand; it’s the only way to rationalize how quickly our realities disintegrate.” Greek myth helps too: Charleen, Ethos’ mother, arrives bearing stories of Persephone’s kidnapping by Hades and Demeter’s pleas for her daughter’s return. But mainly Nao highlights the reckless, heterodox, absurd paths our minds take while mourning; in one passage, Catholic imagines sex with a bicycle not out of any erotic urge but a physical desire to “rub my weight, my debris, my dormant vices off this earth.” This pile-on of peculiarities can be puzzling at first. Does Catholic really intend to take her fish for walks? Does Charleen really sexually desire her son? But the imagery ultimately reveals the disassociation from oneself that accompanies grief, with a few hints at ways of becoming whole again.

An off-kilter but effective tone poem on loss and recovery.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2016
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Coffee House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2016




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