Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review of Tinling Choong's novel FireWife: A Story of Fire and Water, Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2007, $21.00, 206 pages.

Tinling Choong's debut novel tells the story of a woman named Nin who lives as a dutiful daughter and wife. Beneath her respectful demeanor, Nin copes with an overwhelming feeling of guilt: she holds herself responsible for the drowning of her younger sister, who fell into a tapioca mud well while the girls played an innocent game as children.

Now, Nin is a grown woman who holds a high corporate position and lives with her loving husband in California. But the death of her younger sister still haunts her, making Nin restless in her cookie-cutter life. She yearns to travel, and resolves to document the lives of unnoticed women and women involved in the sordid sex industry around the world.

This past April, Tinling Choong told a crowd at a PEN-sponsored New York Public library event that her idea for writing the novel came from a photograph she saw of a woman in Japan who was lying naked and being used as a table in a sushi restaurant. Men ate delicacies off the woman’s bare flesh. This photograph affected Choong, and that night she started writing. This writing blossomed into her main character Nin—a guilt-ridden, fledgling photographer who travels to Taipei, Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore, Amsterdam, and New York. In each city, Nin encounters women who endure some form of degradation, whether it is commercial exploitation or prostitution. Through these encounters, Nin comes closer to the essence of her dilemma, which turns out to be one of mythic proportions. She grows ever more determined to learn the truth about women.

The novel is structured with Nin’s story framed by a death—that of a woman named Lakshmi in India who was burned on a pyre as a sacrificial wife—and a “prologue misplaced”—a creation myth about Nuwa who cracked open the egg at the start of time and bonded eight women to one another for eternity. Though in the present-day story with Nin and the photographed women, the eight incarnations of these ancient women only encounter each other for the instant it takes to shoot a photograph, through these encounters they are restoring the balance of fire and water that sets women free.

Tinling Choong’s novel is written in English, but it celebrates qualities of the Chinese language, revealing Choong as an accomplished “threshold writer.” For instance, happiness is described as “pinkpink” and a woman’s devotion is described as her “forgetting-own-stomach type of giving.” These phrases echo the way descriptive phrases are used in Chinese. This fresh and poetic use of the English language fills Choong’s first novel with lyrical prose that makes it a purely satisfying read. Please visit Choong’s website for more details about this author and her novel.