Little Hut of Leaping Fishes

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Chiew-Siah Tei is a master storyteller, and a rare talent. The Malaysian writer has that magical ability of being able to weave a spell over her readers, with riveting plots and prose that glows with life. Little Hut of Leaping Fishes is her first novel in English and, having been nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2007, it’s an impressive debut.

What makes the novel remarkable is the way Tei has crafted a literary form all of her own. Her writing has the subtleties and nuances of Chinese prose – where metaphors are often used to describe the exterior of an object or person, thereby revealing its inner state – yet is written in masterful English, creating a strikingly original voice.

We begin in 1875 in the mansion of Master Chai, a feudal landlord who reigns over Plum Blossom Village. His precious first grandson Mingzhi is being born to one of his son’s wives. The tale grows with the young boy as he copes with the oppressive household and a jealous half-brother. Mingzhi is a sensitive soul, a scholar and artist, who is taken under the wing of the town’s scholar and grows to be a respected intellectual and, eventually, a Mandarin.

This introverted tale of the family then expands to encompass China’s story. It is the nineteenth century and the era of the Opium Wars. ‘Foreign devils’ are surging into China and as Mingzhi travels to the Imperial City he becomes entwined with the politics of his time.

The very success of the novel lies in the intimate way that this grand narrative is contained. This is a part of China’s history that has not been widely written about, yet the era sparked the mass migration of many Chinese, such as Tei’s family, so has deep relevance across Asia. Tei humanizes this history, and crafts the story like a master calligrapher – effortless, alive and rich with meaning. Clare Morin

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