Larissa Lai’s second novel, Salt Fish Girl, combines history and fantasy in an involving speculative fiction. Without revealing too much about the plot, the perspectives of the two protagonists, the 2040s Miranda and 1800s Nu Wa, are interwoven in an exploration of sexual desire, genetic modification, immigration and family responsibility.
The strength of the novel comes from its richly imagined future scenes. So much so that the speculative future reads as a much more compelling and realized time than the historical one (when one might expect depth in detail through research). The future protagonist, Miranda, also controls a stronger narrative voice and sense of character motivation and development.
The chapters set in the past are not disappointing, but rely too heavily on magic realism, without sufficient grounding in either time or place (something the future chapters do quite well). Further, these sections lack – with the exception of the meeting of Salt Fish Girl – concrete plot experiences, and so ‘float’ in a wishy-washy space of over-stated symbolism.
The symbolism is my chief complaint. Lai needs to trust her reader to interpret and analyze the text. As it is, the combination of an abundance of heavy handed symbolic references and (purposefully?) ambiguous mythic references leave the reader at one and the same time frustrated with the emphatic symbolism and confused by the seemingly inexplicable plot events.
That said, the time changes and the Miranda plot are engaging and as a consequence the book reads quickly and for the most part, enjoyably – if you can get past the symbol saturation and occasionally disorienting plot elements.