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Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigers

Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigers

You cant tell a story forward, not really, says Mischa Reese in Emily Maguires recently released Fishing for Tigers. Its a statement thats as true as it is telling, particularly when you learn the context of the quote: Mischas stroll through a temple with the teenage son of one of her friends.

I was content in his company, and I was innocent.

The answers someone might give to the question what is happening? as opposed to what was happening? are bound to be utterly divergent. Its not just the distance afforded by hindsight thats at work here, but also the changes in who we are as individuals, and the weird and scrappy way that we piece together our memories.

Memory, after all, is both a narrative and an argument, and recollection requires analysis (and allows subterfuge at that) in a way that reportage doesnt. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Im drawn to novels written in a reflective manner: the added temporal distance provides not just an interesting lens of narrative depth, but also of the character growth and change that has occurred because of the events depicted in the book, and also after those events.

However, this same temporal distance can also be stunningly misleading. When theres a gap between the then and now, its inevitable that the question will arise regarding what is actually true and what is merely perceived to be trueand whether theres really much of a difference between the two. And this is where things become fascinating for me as a reader: I get to become a sleuth as I read.

Two of my favourite novels this year, The Glamour by Christopher Priest and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, take this long-term recollective approach to their storytelling process; both also give us unreliable narrators. So too does Fishing for Tigers, and its difficult to tell what, if anything, of the book can be taken as truth.

Mischa has lived in Hanoi, Vietnam since fleeing an abusive marriage some five years ago, and since then has existed in that strange purgatorial way of expats. With the length of her stay indefinite, she doesnt see the point of truly settling in in any part of her life. She has a job, not a career, and one that could be readily exchanged for something else; she doesnt speak the language beyond a few basic niceties; and despite the constant pressure from her friends shes resisted buying a motorbike, getting around instead like a tourist might.

'I had become a woman without a self. For years I had spoken in sentences that werent. In work and food and housing Id got not what I wanted but what I could ask for. My opinions and insights became as childish as the fragments of language I had to express them. My foreigners defence of smiling blandness bled into my English-speaking interactions. The thing I got that I didnt ask for would do and the thing I wanted but didnt get I could do without. The friends I had were those easily kept. They could have been anyone. I could have been anyone'

Mischa seems to want to lose herself in the anonymity of a foreign city, and yet the affair she embarks on with 18-year-old Cal is at odds with this. The way, too, that the affair unfolds, and her justifications for becoming caught up in it, strike the reader as not necessarily veracious. Mischa paints herself as a wide-eyed Bambi at the beginning of the narrative, but this isnt the case'but truly, what of it, particularly given that her male friends are doing exactly the same thing with young Vietnamese girls? As an oldie in my late twenties, the thought of having it off with a teenager is a touch excruciating, but the affair is consensual, and its legal at that.

So what is the problem? I think its two-fold. First, Mischa is an older woman having an affair with a young man rather than the typical older man, younger woman scenario; and that Cal, whos half Vietnamese, identifies and is identified by others as an Australian, not a local. As Mischas expat friends have made patently clear, theres a vast gap in the value placed on a westerner and that placed upon a native Vietnamese: the latter are seen as a commodity to be exploited, a faceless group who are scarcely human to this group of self-styled royalty who have determined to live on the fringes of a society such that they can make of it, and take from it, whatever they will without any thought for the consequences. Her relationship is the human embodiment of the way that westerners treat a country such as Vietnam.

Theres certainly a truth to Mischas explanation of the relationship narrative, and yet theres a neatness to Mischas styling of it as well, one that suggests that perhaps theres a touch of revisionism at work here. Despite her professions of innocence, Mischa seems to revel in the verboten nature of the relationship, in part because Cals passionate, questioning ways force her to connect with the world at long last and to ponder her place and her purpose. And yet, theres another event later on in the book involving her family that does exactly the same thing'but interestingly enough, Mischa remains removed from this, life-changing and potentially devastating though it is. Perhaps she is not quite the innocent she would paint herself as.

With its hedonism and excess, its richly depicted locale and its depiction of a relationship featuring a shifting power balance, the book as a whole is redolent of F Scott Fitzgeralds Tender is the Night, although it lacks the brutally precise dialogue and the cutting narrative: Fishing for Tigers often falls into didactic finger-wagging, and has a tendency to explain and reiterate what is already strikingly obvious.

Still, its easy enough to imagine Fitzgeralds Divers drinking up with Mischa and her friends as they engage as superficially as they can with their environment, celebrating their irrelevance and their purposelessness. Even though Mischa is a part of this, towards the end of the book she skewers her friends, and brings into question the truth of her own narrative with the following:

'My Hanoi friends thought that what I did with Cal was out of character, but how would they know? How would I? It may have been the first in-character thing I had done in my life.'

Its a line that contrasts quite strongly with her assertion that she'was content in his company, and she was innocent.

Rating: star Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigersstar Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigersstar Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigershalfstar Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigersblankstar Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigers (very good)

Your turn:'do you like reading about unreliable narrators?

With thanks to Macmillan Australia for the review copy

Support Read in a Single Sitting by purchasing'Fishing for Tigers'through one of the affiliate links below:

Amazon'|'Book Depository UK'|'Book Depository USA'|'Booktopia

Other books by Emily Maguire:


Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for TigersSmoke in the Room by Emily Maguire Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigers

The Gospel According to Luke by Emily Magire Unreliable narrators and Emily Maguires Fishing for Tigers

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  1. Interesting juxtaposition of portrayal of self and actualized expression of self. I always think discussions of memory are quiet interesting. How we perceive something informs what we believe happened.
    Jami Zehr recently posted..Book Review: Unquiet Dreams

    • Stephanie /

      Im always fascinated by unreliable narrators, for some reason. Perhaps because were all unreliable, and that its so important to question not only how our own experiences are coloured by memory, but how others are as well. This always creeps me out when I consider it within a courtroom context!

      • Its very interesting working with witnesses. We often can tell that there is a part of the story we are missing. Whether its from failure to tell the whole truth rather than just partial truths or because memory is decided by our own past precedence (ha! lawyer humor there for you)we acknowledge that reality is probably far different than the story that gets told.
        Jami Zehr recently posted..Awesome Adaptations: The Night Circus Needs to Be A Film

        • Stephanie /

          Oh, thats so fascinating. Im always amazed by what people apparently remember when theyre beating witness. Given how far out these trials are (although I suppose theyve probably gone over the same story several times already) its impressive! I can barely remember what I had for breakfast!

          I wonder how much of our memory is guided by others pressing and by our desire to meet others expectations of those memories

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