How do you classify a book like Fish-hair woman by Filipino-Australian writer, Merlinda Bobis? Darned if I know, but I’ll have a go. It’s part war story, murder mystery, political thriller, romance, and historical epic. It draws on the magical realist tradition of writers like Isabel Allende, but overarching all this, it is a book about stories – about the stories we cleave to ourselves and the stories we tell others, the stories that convey the truth and the ones that hide it, the stories that change with time and those that never change.
But enough preamble, let’s get to the action. The book is set in the Philippines, with the core story taking place in a village called Iraya in 1987. It is a time of civil unrest: government soldiers fight communist insurgents (the historical New People’s Army), with privately-controlled armies added to the mix. The villagers are caught in the middle, struggling to survive under
violence dressed as salvation. What hopeful word, the sibilants a gentle hush: salvacion. The soldiers and the rebels spoke of this same cause, even as they remained in opposite camps and our village festered in between.
The central characters are Estrella, the fish-hair woman who uses her 12-metres-long hair like a net to retrieve the dead from the river (“trawl another victim of our senseless war”); her older “sister”, Pilar, who joins the communist insurgents; and Tony, the Australian journalist whom both had loved. These relationships are complicated by the fact that Estrella, whose mother died at the birth, is the illegitimate daughter of the most powerful man in the village, Mayor Kiko Estraderos (aka Doctor Alvarado), the man who runs the private army.
While the main action occurs in 1987, the time-frame moves between 1977, 1987 and 1997, with the story being mostly told from the perspective of 1997. By this time Pilar and Tony are among the dead or disappeared and Tony’s 19-year-old son Luke has been lured to the Philippines, on the pretext that his father is alive, by Kiko who wishes to “sanitise history and facilitate his return to politics”.
It’s a multi-layered story of political unrest, complicated village loyalties, and familial and romantic love. It is told in first person and third person, with changing points of view. Sometimes we see through Estrella’s eyes, sometimes Luke’s, sometimes an omnipotent narrator’s or another character’s, and occasionally through newspaper clippings. Woven through it are recurring images and smells – the sweet lemongrass tainted by the corpse-laden river, the fireflies that light the dead so they can be found, and Estrella’s long hair that magically grows each time she senses violence and pain.
This is one of those books that requires you to go with the flow. Its structure mimics the way we layer stories, the way we weave history and myth, stories and memories, so that at any one time we may or may not know where we are or who we are. Estrella, the fish-hair woman, and Stella, Doctor Kiko’s daughter, for example, are different facets of the same person, each with different stories.
There are simpler characters, too. One is Pay Inyo, the village gravedigger. He reminded me a little of the grandfather in Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village. He’s the peaceful man, the wise one who urges a humane path, who says it’s about perspective, “about how and from where you look … how far … and what you will to see”. But even he is unsure about the story:
But who is the hero in this story? Pay Inyo is not sure anymore, nor is he sure about what the story is in the first place. There are too many stories weaving into each other, only to unweave themselves at each telling, so that each story can claim prominence. Stories are such jealous things. The past and the present, ay, what wayward strands.
There were times, as I read, when I thought that Bobis may have created a few too many “wayward strands”. Some stories may not have been critical to tell, but her voice is so compelling and the language so expressive that I didn’t really begrudge her these, because by then I was well and truly along for the ride.
This is a novel set during war and yet it is not really about war. It is about people, “those whom we love and hate”, about how we use and manipulate stories to “save” or ” kill”, and, as Pay Inyo would like us to see, about collective grieving, collective responsibility:
This is the wake of the world: each of us standing around a pool that we have collected for centuries. We are looking in with our little pails … We try to find only what is ours. We wring our hands. Ay, how to go home with only my undiluted pail of grief? To wash my rice with or my babies, to drink? But the water is my dead kin, an enemy, a beloved, a stranger, a friend, someone who loved me or broke my heart. How to tell them apart? How to cleave water from water?
For all the sadness and brutality in this book, it has a big heart. And its message is clear. We are all in this together. How much better if we see it sooner rather than later.
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press)
34 thoughts on “Merlinda Bobis, Fish-hair woman (Review)”
Excellenve review. Thanks. I have been eyeing this one and glad to be assured I want to read it.
Ooh, that’s pressure, mdbrady! But, really, it’s a great read for people who like to get their teeth into a book because it has so much to offer besides a powerful story.
This sounds fascinating: is the author from the Philippines?
Yes, she is Lisa. Came here around 1991 and is now based in Wollongong I believe. She’s written quite a lot. I think this is her third novel, and it grew out of a short story about the fish-hair woman I think.
Sounds like a strong current and powerful ride. It’s true it does sound like there is a huge heart in there, with so many magical strands of story. Wish I had more time to read, as ever
Powerful ride is the word Catherine. I’d happily read more of her.
Fantastic, this is what Australian literature needs: new voices that represent our diverse population!
Sure, does … lovely to find another voice isn’t it.
I’ve just ordered another novel of hers that sounds interesting, The Solemn Lantern Maker…
oh, good for you Lisa. I’d like to read some short stories of hers.
Try here. The 2nd one is a short story collection, I think.
Thanks Lisa … will check it out.
Wow, this sounds amazing! Great review, as usual.
I heart Spinifex Press. they do a fantastic job!
Thanks Hannah … and you’re right, they do.
This sounds wonderful. I like stories about stories and I like stories with elements of magical realism too. Not available at any libraries around here yet though. Hopefully it will be eventually.
You’d like it then, Stefanie. It’s a small publisher though which I guess means the chances of finding it os are harder. This was the one I was thinking was “translit” but as I read more I decided it wasn’t … Some magical realism but as I read more I realised that it doesn’t have the sort of changes in time-space that translit is about. Sorry for leading you on 😉
Thank you for your review – I love Melinda Bobis’s poetry. I first saw her perform her poetry, with voice, song, movement and dance, at a writers’ festival in 1998, and was swept away by the intensity of feeling she expressed. Two years later I attended a workshop she ran on ‘Writing the bilingual poem’. She sees language as residing in the body. Where there are 2 cultures, the body wears them both, and is divided between the two. For her, the tension between her 2 languages manifests in her ‘wishbone’, the 2 bones joining at the top of her chest. One of her poems begins: ‘I bring you words freshly prised loose from my wishbone.’
I prefer her poetry to her prose, but on the strength of your review I might seek out ‘Fish-hair Woman’. Several of her poems include images of long hair, for example: ‘I even tie my hair from cliff to cliff and invite tightrope dancers.’
Oh thanks for all this Bryce. I must look out for her at a literary occasion. Long-hair does seem to feature in her work a bit it seems. I’d love your perspective on the novel given that you’ve read some of her already.
Do you remember that I own Banana Heart Summer, and that I met Merlinda Bobis back at ANU once? 🙂
I had forgotten … but now you’ve reminded me. Would love to borrow the book.
This sounds really interesting. I’m always attracted to books that are difficult to classify.
A woman after my own heart Annabel. Thanks for commenting … I hope you get to read it one day.
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I finally read this one, and I am blown away. Such a lovely book. I seldom read reviews of books that I plan to write about, but I was having a hard time figuring out what to say and remembered your review. I knew it was an excellent review, but now I have read the book, I am even more impressed with your ability to write coherently about it.
Why thanks Marilyn, that means a lot … It’s an astonishing book isn’t it. I recollect that I spent a LOT of time on that review so I understand your challenge.
PS I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t read reviews till after I’ve written mine. Sometimes if I’m feeling uncertain I’ll write my draft then check others to see whether I’ve gone out on a limb and missed something critical … To reassure myself!
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Luke ended up with Stella’s sister right? What is her name?
Sorry Phil, I am at an airport away from my books, and it’s a while since I read this. I presume you’ve read the book?