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Emily Maguire’s vivid novel of expats in Hanoi reveals some uncomfortable truths.  

Mischa is a thirty-something Australian woman who washes up in Hanoi in the aftermath of an abusive marriage:

I wanted to lose myself so thoroughly that I would never find my way back. I had picked Hanoi because the airfare was cheap and I knew almost nothing about the place. The need to be swallowed up by strangeness was the closest thing to desire I’d felt in years.

In Hanoi, she has no responsibilities and no one to answer to. Six years on, Mischa has come to love and – in a limited way (she still has no more than half a dozen words of Vietnamese) – to understand the city. She has an apartment, a job (as an editor for an English-language magazine) and a group of rackety expat friends: journalists, teachers and aid workers. They have a proprietorial attitude to the city, and a contempt for tourists:

‘I’m so over these sunburnt teenagers wandering around the Old Quarter with their tits spilling out of their tiny tops. Have some fucking respect!’ 

And they see the city being destroyed by the wrong kind of material progress:

‘You know what I see when I stand out there? Bloody high rises, that’s what. I used to be able to see all the way to Tây Ho on a clear day, but now … It didn’t used to be like this. It’s all wrong now.’

Outside working hours, their interactions with the locals are confined to ordering drinks from them, employing them as housekeepers or (in the case of the men) seducing them. The group is insular and selfish, but Maguire manages to ensure that none of them is wholly unsympathetic.

It is a shock for all of them when Mischa’s best friend Matthew introduces his 18-year-old Vietnamese-Australian son, Cal.

Cal is smart, devastatingly handsome, and bristling with issues. His mother had been very resistant to the idea of him going to Vietnam, the country she fled decades ago. But now Cal has finished school, and before university begins, he takes the opportunity to see his father’s home. He is the perfect vehicle to observe the city – and his father’s companions – with fresh eyes. At times petulant and impulsive, he can also be devastatingly direct.

Almost instantly he becomes besotted with Mischa, sending her texts and putting himself in her way. She is at first charmed, then made vulnerable by him. Their relationship quickly becomes intense, passionate and – because of Matthew – secret.

Mischa tries treating it as just another affair, but is surprised that her sharp-talking lover:

… now turned out to be remarkably romantic about sex. Lust, in his mind, was meaningful. If he felt it for me, then there must be something there. Something else. Something more.

Emily Maguire writes well and frankly about the urgency of physical desire, and how consideration of anything else can fall away before it:

I knew, of course, that I couldn’t trust myself when it came to s-x, that my brain was just another opiate-addicted hunk of meat that would do anything to get its fix. But when your brain tells you, at the touch of a particular person, that everything is exactly as it should be … well, what else is there? If the parts of which I am made are so convinced, then what is left of me to protest?

Inevitably, of course, the affair can’t go on, and it is almost a relief when the lovers are discovered.

It was Oscar Wilde who wrote that ‘each man kills the thing he loves’, and the novel takes its title from a Vietnamese folk tale with much the same message. Tigers are so venerated that to catch one is to gain the tiger’s power. One way to do it is to bury a hook, attached to a lead, within its food. The hook then gets caught in the tiger’s throat. The tiger becomes a miserable beast, unable to eat, eventually dying in terrible pain. You’ve caught your tiger, the thing you desire, and in doing so you’ve destroyed it.

In an interview about the book, Emily Maguire has said:

People inflict terrible damage on those they love through holding on too tightly or neglecting them at crucial moments or through simple carelessness. It’s too simplistic to say that if someone hurts you they don’t love you.

Mischa echoes this sentiment towards the end of the novel:

Mel says you don’t hurt someone you love but I think she’s wrong. Hurting someone is an act of intimacy; it means they’ve got to you, got inside you. You lash out because you can’t bear the unfathomable need. You bury the hook deep, and even though you despair at the damage, you leave it in there because it means you’re in control.

The danger of this sort of thinking, of course, is that it can become an excuse for tolerating cruelty when you should leave. It’s impossible not to think of what Mischa has suffered at the hands of her abusive ex-husband, as well as the consequences of her own actions in embarking on the affair with Cal.

The novel asks questions about the nature of love and desire, about East and West and how they interact, about younger men and older women, older men and younger women. Cal rejects the stereotype of Asian women as passive ‘geishas’ (his mother certainly isn’t one), and is disgusted by the sight of young Vietnamese bar girls flirting with middle-aged Western men. But in his disdain isn’t he stereotyping the bar girls and the men, too?

Emily Maguire’s writing sparks with sassiness and humour. Here Mischa describes a lacklustre sexual encounter:

I went back to his house and we had sex and afterwards I felt my face morph into the same smile I’d had after ordering an omelette and being served a duck foetus at a rural street-food stall. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I was thankful that my blundering attempts at communication had resulted in any food at all.

Fishing for Tigers is a sharply observed novel, both page-turning and thought-provoking. It vividly evokes the particular beauty of Hanoi, the intoxication of being a stranger, and the danger of desire.

Emily Maguire Fishing for Tigers, Picador, 2012, PB, 336pp, $29.99

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