A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes." - Anonymous Twelve American tourists join an art expedition that begins in the Himalayan foothills of China - dubbed the true Shangri-La - and heads south into the jungles of Burma. But after the mysterious death of their tour leader, the carefully laid plans fall apart, and disharmony breaks out among the pleasure-seekers as they come to discover that the Burma Road is paved with less-than-honorable intentions, questionable food, and tribal curses. And then, on Christmas morning, eleven of the travelers boat across a misty lake for a sunrise cruise - and disappear. Drawing from the current political reality in Burma and woven with pure confabulation, Amy Tan's picaresque novel poses the question: How can we discern what is real and what is fiction, in everything we see? How do we know what to believe?
The titular phrase Saving Fish From Drowning describes a Buddhist belief, encountered by the story's tourists, about how fisherman are not doing harm to their targets but rather are trying to help their catches by preventing them from drowning. The paradox becomes a theme of the book of how good intentions do not always cross cultures well and the story proceeds with many instances of the Easterners and Westerners trying to "save" each other.
The characters and plot line are instantly captivating and Tan is a masterful storyteller. Her cultural research and creative dialog make for a unique and interesting book however, as she plays with flashbacks and multiple points of view the pacing at times feels rather sluggish. A few of the characters seem pointless and their perspectives add little to the story, but their inclusion does provide a depth of realism and shows the scope of personalities Tan is able to capture in her writing. Overall this was not Tan's best work but deserves sincere applause for her first foray into a new genre.
The book contains much that is factual about recent Burmese history, and it’s certainly interesting, and disturbing, to learn about the indigenous Karen people and the horrific ways in which they’ve been treated by the Burmese military. But as a novel, the book is seriously flawed. It’s packed with too many characters who at best are flat and at worst are pure stereotypes: a hypochondriac who travels with a nearly complete medicine chest, an empty-headed, self-important television star (who hosts a popular show on dog training), a churlish teenager, and so on. The writing is often clunky, and the attempts at humor often fall flat: for example, a visit to “The Grotto of Female Genitalia” just isn’t on its own as funny as the author would like it to be. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s well below what one would expect from an author with Tan’s talents.
The group blunders its way through China, altering the course that Bibi had set for them, at times acting the ugly American, as Bibi watches, frustrated.
On Christmas, on their way to a promised Christmas surprise as they are crossing a misty lake in Burma, the group disappears.
This was a wonderful, fascinating, adventurous book, with Tan's usual themes of relationships woven subtly throughout. I really, really loved this book. I think it's Tan's best work yet! It does start a tad bit slowly, but after about 20 pages or so it picks up beautifully and doesn't leave off. This was an extremely satisfying read!
It is always sad when what would have been a five star read eventually and slowly deteriorates into a absurd and preposterous collection of explanations to wrap up a story. The first third of [Saving Fish from Drowning] would have been, hands down, a five star read with its host of captivating and engaging characters. The last third was filled with ridiculous turn of events that bordered on being ludicrous. Tan is talented with her ability to pen the life stories of the people who hold the crux of her narrative without sacrificing the story itself, but at the point where I was completely and utterly at her mercy, she left me incredulous and indignant at what was justified as the ending. Despite my lack of love for the conclusion of the book, her strength in story telling and magical touch in transforming black and white characters into flesh and blood was enough to save a book that lost its lustre and lure when it should have only gotten better.
This story takes place in Burma / Myanmar and Amy Tan uses China, a fixture in most of her stories, as an entry point into the country and as a way of introducing our cast of characters. The story is true to life in that the experiences these people have on their journey, changes each of them. We also view the all too common faults of American culture through the eyes of the inhabitants of these far away countries.
Often, when an author tries to give us too many messages, tries to have too many plot lines working, the storyline fails miserably. “Saving Fish” succeeds on all levels because of the complexity of the plot. The travelogue portion is very entertaining and written so well, the armchair traveler will have no trouble seeing the sights described. The interpersonal relationships are also well played out and at times, very entertaining. You really develop feelings for these characters. The message of political oppression is delivered very forcefully, but it in no way interferes with the rest of the story. If you are following the people story, not the political story, the politics sits in the background as part of the overall scenery. If you concentrate on the political aspects, the characters become something like a classical Greek chorus reminding in the audience what is going in the people’s lives. As I said, very well done all around.
Because of the scope of the work, you can read this as an adventure story and not be disappointed. You can also read this as something of a detective novel and find it very fulfilling. Satirists will find some hilarious scenes in the book as well. However you choose to read it, you should enjoy it this story immensely.
Ms. Tan develops her characters to the fullest, gives them a nice plot to interact with each other, and all the while keeping you entertained and guessing what will happen next. It's one of those books that makes you laugh out loud, shake your head, and frown all at the same time. Ms. Tan is the best at taking a bit of historial information and weaving a truly delightful story from it.
I’m glad that Tan stretched her subject area, although I’d be happy reading her stories of Asian/Asian American mothers & daughters forever, but this book really should have been edited heavily before being published. It’s just not that good.
Tan’s people have always been where her talents shown, but this novel had almost no one with a developed character. The narrator, a dead woman, fairs best, but even she remains largely a cipher. The other people, an ensemble of travelers in Burma, are more caricature than character.
The book revolves around a group of tourists who travel to Burma and how they are abducted by a group hidden in the hills because the tribe thinks that a teenaged boy in the group is their ‘god’ come back to save them from the Burmese government, who wants them all dead. The government hinders rather than helps the rescue effort, the tourists believe the tribe who tells them that they cannot get out due to a fallen bridge (and don’t question it when things like noodles magically appear) and the incident brings the tribe first great good fortune, which is soon snatched away from them. You expect that the characters will grow from this experience, or at least be changed somehow, but this doesn’t seem to happen. No epiphanies, no post traumatic stress disorder. They just go back to their lives.
I have the feeling that Tan felt she ‘should’ write a novel with a political message, but wasn’t that into it, and didn’t really know how to fit in-depth characters into it. It’s a shame she couldn’t manage it; it’s a shame that her editor didn’t point out the flaws of this book. Did I feel like giving up reading it halfway? No. Did I feel let down? Yes.