Expatriates and escapees

Emily Maguire explores memory and identity in <i>Fishing for Tigers. </i>
Emily Maguire explores memory and identity in Fishing for Tigers.

By Emily Maguire
Picador, $29.99

MISCHA Reese is a 35-year-old Australian escaping her troubled past. She spends her days in Hanoi editing for a Vietnamese weekend magazine that prints ''feel-good'' stories and her nights drinking with her ''tribe'' - a bunch of cynical, sex-crazed expats. The group is united in its love for this steamy, congested city and in escaping routine lives back home. Into this tight-kit crowd arrives Cal, the 18-year-old Australian-Vietnamese son of Mischa's good friend Matthew.

Beautiful and muscular Cal is used to being admired. An adolescent on the cusp of becoming a man, he has that ''uniquely teenaged tone that somehow suggests both outrage and indifference''. Brought up in Sydney by his Vietnamese mother, who escaped as a young child and has never returned, Cal is trying to find his connection with a country he barely knows.

Despite Mischa's misgivings, the inevitable happens between them. Unlike her friends, this tall redhead isn't into one-night stands with imbecile backpackers. She's been single for a while, recovering from the emotional fallout of her violent marriage to Californian Glen, ''blond, tanned, tall'', whom she married at 17. Since leaving him she's been ''running scared''.

Cal shatters the wall around her heart and her own moral compass. Whereas Mischa works hard at keeping the peace and is ''pathologically nice'', Cal is unafraid to wade into a public spat between a man and woman and speak his mind.

Hanoi provides a colourful canvas to their love affair and is painted with fine brush strokes. The heat, the sudden downpours when typhoon season starts and the hair-raising trips on the back of xe oms - motorbike taxis - add to the verisimilitude of the story.

The brutal legacy of the war is all around, and so is the constant surveillance of foreigners: ''There is no privacy in Vietnam.'' Hanoi, a city ''blackened with the grief of those terrified for the souls of their massacred kin'', is the ideal crucible for Mischa to come to terms with her own demons. Yet, in doing so, she has lost all sense of who she is.

Although the narrative is told from Mischa's point of view, Cal is the most sharply drawn of all the characters. In part, this is because his family background is the most interesting. His mother and family fled Vietnam during the war; his grandfather grieves for the loss of his wife and country. Meanwhile, Cal is viewed as a ''nip'' by his paternal grandmother and struggles to relate to his absent Australian father, Matthew, who lives in Hanoi.

Through Cal, Emily Maguire sensitively handles the complexities of being between cultures and yet belonging nowhere.

In comparison, Mischa's own tragic family history - she was orphaned as a young girl and hasn't seen her two older sisters for years - can seem orchestrated. At times, the reminders of her abusive marriage detract from the forward pulse of the narrative.

Known for her bold feminist works, Maguire is the author of five books, including the non-fiction Princesses and Pornstars and her first novel, Taming the Beast. In her latest work, her writing is at its best when the sparks fly between Mischa and Cal. The sex scenes are hot and explosive and the lust palpable. Maguire sustains the tension until the end and Cal's fury at the injustice of life in Vietnam is a thrill to read.

Fishing for Tigers is a smart novel that explores memory and identity, while questioning ''how we interpret our past and ourselves''. The contrast between the Vietnamese respect for their ancestors and family, and the rootlessness of the expats provides an apt recurring theme. But as Mischa says at the end, in Vietnam ''suffering isn't a rite of passage or test of character. It happens and then, if you can, you get up and move on. Not stronger or better, but alive.'' Wise words indeed.

This story Expatriates and escapees first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.