Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
“At a loss for words”, “in awe” and “confused but thrilled” are all phrases that I could use to describe my feelings when I reached the last page of K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary. So forgive me if can’t quite articulate what went on in this smorgosbord of a debut novel.
On a very basic level, stories of three generations of Taiwanese-American women, the unnamed Ama, Mother and Daughter, intertwine with myths that are passed down the generations. They chronicle what it is like to move from mainland China to Taiwan and leave all — including your children — behind and start afresh, and then uproot yourself again and tackle life with no money or English in the US. Through anecdotes and intergenerational storytelling, the women build a picture of more or less dysfunctional families, parental whims and sibling love and rivalry, as well as girlhood and queerness.
All of this comes packed in magical realism. A reoccurring theme is that of Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit who takes over a woman’s body and pays the price for this by eternal hunger. After hearing the tale from Mother, Daughter wakes up with a tail that grows stronger and more demanding, and faces a fear of losing control of her tiger self. As she listens to Mother’s myths and reads letters from Ama (that are spat out by holes in her back garden in return for being fed — I warned you), she navigates stories of children born with snake penises or out of crabs, lustful river women and men birthing rabbits.
This suspension of reality is matched by Chang’s poetic prose: when Daughter’s sickly grandfather starts sweating salt, the family “cooked with pinches of his powdered sweat. Sucking on saltshards, we preserved our mouths in the shape of his name.” However, the otherworldly events and lyrical language is counterbalanced with what seems like a Freudian preoccupation with corporeal matters. More than once, “we laughed until we pissed ourselves warm and had to line our underwear with paper towels.” Mundane childhood observations create a distinct sense of humour: “We’d just begun seventh grade sex education, which mostly meant our teacher explained that the adhesive “wings” of a Maxi pad were not literal wings and could not equip us with flight.”
Bestiary is very much a matter of myth meeting the mundane; it’s the kind of magical realism that turns everything upside down just when you thought you were grasping the letter-spitting holes and pant-pissing. At times I wondered if some of the strangeness was there just for the sake of it, and as I read through descriptions of the umpteenth human-animal-plant hybrid being born, I could not help questioning whether less could have been more. Perhaps not, though: when you give up on trying to understand it all and let the story flow — with snake penises and all —, it is as enchanting as it is strange.
The real world makes very little sense right now. Bestiary offers an escape into a magical reality where life is bound even less by what is expected.
Anna is a journalist and bookworm.
K-Ming Chang, Bestiary (Harvill Secker, 2021). 978-1787301849, 272pp., hardback..
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