The narrator of Saving Fish from Drowning is a ghost. So it makes sense that Bibi Chen (said ghost) could go anywhere and see anything. But wait! There’s more. Bibi can know things about people, a bit like clairvoyance.
At her funeral, after hearing her friends discuss the touring trip to Burma she was supposed to lead them on, hearing the concerns they expressed out loud as well as knowing the true reasons why they said these things, Bibi says:
How I knew all this, I had no notion at first, didn’t even wonder how I knew. But I sensed others as clearly as I sensed myself; their feelings became mine. I was privy to their secret thoughts: their motives and desires, guilt feelings and regrets, joys and fears, as well as shades of truth within what they said, and what they refrained from saying. The thoughts swam about me like schools of colorful fish, and as people spoke, their true feelings dove through me in a flash. It was that shocking and effortless. The Mind of Others – that’s what the Buddha would have called it.
Well, that works. Certainly makes the case for how Bibi will be able to relate so much more than just observations as the group continues on the tour without her. It allows the narration to move effortlessly between characters, jumping from mind to mind at whim.
Until we come across Heinrich Glick, a shifty, shady con man who bounced around Asia working for resorts and hotels.
As I said, he was a slippery man. Wait another minute and he would have changed his position another one hundred and eighty degrees, then another, until you had gone in a circle, and all by his reporting differing, vague innuendoes. Even now, I felt I did not understand some essential aspects of this man. I couldn’t. He had thrown a barrier up. Or had I? In Buddhism it is said you must have complete compassion to have complete understanding. I, on the other hand, wished that the slick Mr. Glick would fall face-first into the water. I don’t suppose that would qualify me as compassionate. Suffice it to say, I did not know at the time all there was to know about Heinrick Glick.
I think we all know that this is going to matter in the mystery of the tourists’ upcoming disappearance. (This isn’t a spoiler; the newspaper clipping included in the beginning of the novel sets up this mystery.)
It feels a little cheap, a little easy to have a narrator who has this magical ability to read minds and even know people’s histories and motivations all of a sudden encounter someone she can’t read. Possibly the Buddhism elements to this ability are appropriate in establishing the rules and exceptions.
And then there are the times Bibi is able to influence people through manipulating their dreams. She convinces her Burmese contact Walter to change reservations for the group through a dream about a conversation that never happens. He wakes up believing it actually happened and quickly makes the changes.
After the group goes missing, Bibi has one missing tourist and her kinda boyfriend (who had stayed behind on the fateful trip due to a hangover) have the same dream. The woman is a monkey and he is a tree, they weirdly have monkey-tree sex, they both wake up desperate for the other. The dream feels superfluous because by the end of the novel it hasn’t directly influenced any events. Not like, say, the dreams Bibi gives to Burmese government officials to start a search and rescue.
But for having a narrator who talks to me directly and talks about her abilities, mum’s the word on dream weaving. How did she pick up that skill? Or even discover that she had it? We are never told. The closest we get is this:
I visited a few people in the Land of Sleep. I had discovered that I could enter dreams quite easily with those who were predisposed to magic.
Such are the corners we writers force ourselves – and our characters – into.