Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Salt Fish Girl

by Larissa Lai

Larissa Lai’s second novel, Salt Fish Girl, stinks. Or rather it’s filled with stink, so much so that odours are described on nearly every page, ranging from the salty tang of the title character to the stench of durian fruit that lingers around the book’s protagonist, a young woman named Miranda.

“This is a story about stink, after all,” Lai writes near the end. “A story about rot, about how life grows out of the most fetid, smelling places.” One such place is a walled city called Serendipity, located on what used to be the west coast of Canada, where Miranda is living in the year 2044. Her adventures are interwoven with those of Nu Wa, a shapeshifter, whose latest incarnation is a woman fighting for survival in 19th-century China. Though the two are separated by distance and time, Lai’s lyrical writing hints that they may be connected in deeper ways.

Though her use of magic realism helps link the stories of Nu Wa and Miranda, the time shifts and unrelenting plot movement leave Lai’s ideas and characters underdeveloped. Lai’s vision of the future is one where corporations own entire cities, where workers for a Nike-esque shoe company have been genetically engineered, where genetically modified fruit provides unwanted surprises, and a dreaming disease that leaks the past into the present is spreading through the land.

Each of these subjects is introduced with enough verve to make them interesting, but Lai shuffles them away too quickly. Other than Miranda herself, the characters in this world push by without consequence. The narrative strains toward an ending in which the book’s two halves collide in an unsatisfying conclusion.

Lai is not lacking in imagination. Her vision of a fractured, corporate Canadian future is infused with magic possibility, but these ideas aren’t given the space to become more than just texture. Its premise is alluring, but Salt Fish Girl is overstuffed, like one of the ripe fruit Miranda encounters throughout.