A revenge fantasy, a little boy lost and an impressive first novel from an actress-turned-writer enthrall Mary Fitzgerald
“Don’t you know that every immigrant tale is a comic romance?” challenges one of the many voices in Marilyn Chin’s fierce, enchanting debut, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (Hamish Hamilton £12.99). A “Manifesto in 41 Tales,” this trailblazing novel charts the loves and adventures of twin sisters Moonie and Mei Ling, raised by their indomitable grandmother, who runs the Double Happiness Restaurant in Piss River, Oregon.
In one sense, this story of impoverished Chinese immigrants, who work in a restaurant shelling prawns and delivering takeaway after school, rubbishes the perception of the Chinese as threatening and newly powerful. Yet this is also an unapologetic revenge fantasy. “Although we are friendly neighbours, you don’t really know me,” warns the bullied, overweight Moonie after she visits revenge on two blond boys who took advantage of her.
Chin’s imaginative dexterity (she is an award-winning poet) is evident from the outset of this enthralling, shape-shifting novel, loaded with references to Buddhist fables, Chinese ancestral tales, Byron, Don Quixote, even Johnny Depp. In one moment, the twins’ granny assumes the form of an eight-legged bodhisattva who chops off penises with her cleaver; the next, the octopod has transformed into Mei Ling in Catholic school uniform, copulating with one of her countless “fuck buddies”. The 41 tales are sung by myriad voices: surfers, Cambodian refugees and even an enormous rice-cake carp.
The stories contain plenty of irreverent asides – “Hey, I’m no doctor, just a storyteller, take my diagnosis with caution please,” one narrator says after a particularly implausible plot twist – and this exuberant playfulness is part of what makes the novel so enchanting.
Delicately crafted narrative unreliability is also a defining feature of Emily Mackie’s superbly unsettling And This Is True (Sceptre £12.99). Nevis Gow is a teenage boy who has lived in a van with his father, Marshall, since his mother left the family home when Nevis was very young. Educated solely by Marshall and the books he picks up as they travel up and down the British Isles, Nevis learns of concepts like God from a leaflet left on their windscreen wiper. He has scraps of memories: “My mother. Let’s make her blonde.” But his world is the van and Marshall – with whom he has fallen in love. As is to be expected, Nevis’s attempt to kiss Marshall while he’s sleeping provokes an irreversible rupture in their lives. Suddenly, they are living on a farm with a family who have taken them in and his father is determined to send him to school and give him a “normal life”. For Nevis, this is a psychological catastrophe.
Countless writers have adopted the perspective of a child in order to challenge the world, with varying degrees of success. But what makes this one convincing, and unusual, is that Nevis is no child. Kept in an almost prelapsarian state throughout his childhood, he has a child’s understanding of love, but a teenager’s sexual drive. He may not understand what certain words mean, but he can grasp the philosophical implications of his lack of comprehension – “If you don’t know the word for something, does it exist?” It is this intriguing question that fuels the tension and intrigue in this gripping, moving tale of a little boy lost.
Another British entrant on to the literary scene this month takes a wholly different approach to both the magical realist style of Marilyn Chin and the slippery, coded version of storytelling offered by Emily Mackie. The Whole Wide Beauty (Faber £12.99), by actress-turned-writer Emily Woof, is an account of love and family set in London and the British countryside. Nothing extraordinary happens: instead, the book unpicks the challenges of ordinary life and how our unconscious instincts surprise and confound us.
Woof, who has written plays since her early 20s, grasps how understatement can be just as powerful as baroque, highly stylised prose. While the romantic yearnings of a middle-class mother might not be wholly original territory, this is far from chick lit; instead, it demonstrates a well-tuned sensitivity to the complications of human existence.