diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews Vi Khi Nao’s newest book, Fish in Exile.
Grief is such a common subject in fiction, it’s difficult to make it new. To be fair, it’s a theme fertile for exploration and an experience that is universal. Vi Khi Nao’s newest book, Fish in Exile, fits perfectly into this tradition while also expanding it.
To summarize it simply: Fish in Exile is a story of a couple—Ethos and Catholic—who, on a family trip to a New England beach, meet unexpected tragedy. Ethos, the husband, is swept into the sea. To save him, Catholic rushes into the water. They return ashore to find their children, Colin and Abby, missing, most likely drowned. What follows is two years of searching and coping.
For Ethos this means quitting his job at an elementary school and “walk[ing] eight miles to the sea. To the cemetery,” where he collects “desiccated jellyfish.” He thinks, perhaps hopelessly, maybe filled with delusion, most definitely touched by grief: “It’s inevitable, then: my children must return home.” Eventually, he decides, “I will take their aquatic, nomadic abode into our home,” and begins to build a massive aquarium, one that surrounds the walls of his house. He fills it with water from the sea.
Meanwhile, Catholic has flipped all the pictures in the house backward (“They’re in time-out,” she says, “They captured too much.”). Soon, she’s sewing dresses for Pistachio and Dogfish, an angelfish and an oriental sweetlips, their pets and stand-in children in the wake of the deaths. She is conscious that what she does is useless. “I am behaving so strangely. I know this,” she says. “I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches.”
Busy with their strange newfound hobbies—coping mechanisms—the couple grows apart in every way possible. And though Ethos tries to mend their relationship, Catholic is haunted by what she sees as her decision to save her husband over staying with her children. Present in the aftermath of tragedy is Ethos’s mother Charleen, a classics professor secretly in competition with Anne Carson, and the couple’s neighbors, Callisto and Lidia.
There is no good way to summarize this wholly unique book. The summary here is out of order; the narrative is fragmented and polyphonic with most of the characters having his or her own section. The structure is a good choice on the author’s part as the story unfolds with tension and suspense. This, however, is sometimes lost in the characters’ meandering thoughts and abstract language. But to be lost in Nao’s language is quite a treat!
In The Old Philosopher (which was also published this year), Nao has already proven herself a skillful poet who can be both playful and deadly serious. She brings the same qualities to this novel. For example, after contemplating suicide, Ethos thinks: “The thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why one should only be done once in a lifetime.” In another section, an eleven-year-old hired to walk the couple’s fish observes, “Rocks are amazing. There’s so much going on in their heads. You can’t tell by looking at them. They’re so quiet.”
But unlike in her poetry, in her fiction, Nao writes thoroughly rendered characters aching with vulnerability, and she handles them tenderly. Recalling an affair with a woman, Charleen says, “She made my body feel like literature, a place for the endless gaze.” The memory contrasts with the desire sadly missing in Ethos and Catholic’s relationship: “She walks toward me awkwardly as if she were walking through me,” says Ethos, “Each walk is a cut…She cuts through me.”
Interestingly, though it’s a story of mere mortals, the story of Ethos and Catholic works in the space between domestic fiction and mythology. We see this in Nao’s allusions to Greek mythology (in particular, the story Demeter and Persephone) as well as her choice in character names, which cast them, at least at the onset, as abstract beings. It makes for a story of loss and turmoil that is at once, strangely, foreign and relatable. “I don’t believe the mind can distinguish between the literal world and the conceptual world,” says one of the characters early in the book. The novel follows this idea to the very end, melding the real with the language of the conceptual to tell a story that is startlingly affecting.
All of this, of course, works in service to Nao’s portrayal of grief in its all complexities. From the outrage of loss (“Why did God steal the children from us? Why didn’t he ask us if it was okay before he shoplifted them?” asks Catholic) to the struggle of keeping a loved one’s memory alive (again, Catholic: “…they’re disappearing from my memory, Ethos. I can’t locate their faces”) to the way grief can be intensely personal (“Everyone wants a part of it. That sorrow. You think it’s too much. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to take you away from it. And you learn to resent them for the invasion,” observes Catholic).
Fish in Exile is a stunning novel that examines how easily we can fall apart after a disaster. “We must be made of sand,” Nao writes, “it’s the only way to rationalize how quickly our realities disintegrate.” Indeed, the traditional narrative of loss disappears in the capable hands of Vi Khi Nao and we are left with a powerful and devastating story that is surprising in the best ways. With such a unique book, the most justice a reviewer can do is to simply tell readers to take a chance on it. Fish in Exile does not disappoint.
Buy the book here.
Fish in Exile
by Vi Khi Nao
Coffee House Press
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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