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Salt Fish Girl

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"Salt Fish Girl" is the mesmerizing tale of an ageless female character who shifts shape and form through time and place. Told in the beguiling voice of a narrator who is fish, snake, girl, and woman - all of whom must struggle against adversity for survival - the novel is set alternately in nineteenth-century China and in a futuristic Pacific Northwest.

At turns whimsical and wry, "Salt Fish Girl" intertwines the story of Nu Wa, the shape-shifter, and that of Miranda, a troubled young girl living in the walled city of Serendipity circa 2044. Miranda is haunted by traces of her mother's glamourous cabaret career, the strange smell of durian fruit that lingers about her, and odd tokens reminiscient of Nu Wa. Could Miranda be infected by the Dreaming Disease that makes the past leak into the present?

Framed by a playful sense of magical realism, "Salt Fish Girl" reveals a futuristic Pacific Northwest where corporations govern cities, factory workers are cybernetically engineered, middle-class labour is a video game, and those who haven't sold out to commerce and other ills must fight the evil powers intent on controlling everything. Rich with ancient Chinese mythology and cultural lore, this remarkable novel is about gender, love, honour, intrigue, and fighting against oppression.

269 pages, Paperback

First published August 4, 2002

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About the author

Larissa Lai

16 books195 followers
Larissa Lai has authored three novels, The Tiger Flu, Salt Fish Girl and When Fox Is a Thousand; two poetry collections, sybil unrest (with Rita Wong) and Automaton Biographies; a chapbook, Eggs in the Basement; and a critical book, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. A recipient of the Astraea Foundation Emerging Writers' Award, she has been a finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Tiptree Award, the Sunburst Award, the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award, the bpNichol Chapbook Award, the Dorothy Livesay Prize and the ACQL Gabrielle Roy Prize for Literary Criticism.

Larissa was born in La Jolla, California and grew up in St. John's, Newfoundland. She spent the 1990s as a freelance writer and cultural organizer. Her first publication was an essay about Asian Canadian contemporary media, published in the catalogue for the 1991 exhibition Yellow Peril: Reconsidered. She has held writer-in-residence positions at the University of Calgary, Simon Fraser University and the University of Guelph. In 2001, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. From 2001-2006, she did a PhD in English at the University of Calgary. She was Assistant Professor in Canadian Literature at UBC from 2007-2014. In 2014, she returned to the University of Calgary to take up a Canada Research Chair in Creative Writing.

She likes dogs, is afraid of cats, and feels at home in both Vancouver and Calgary.

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5 stars
365 (26%)
4 stars
479 (34%)
3 stars
368 (26%)
2 stars
125 (9%)
1 star
36 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 224 reviews
107 reviews19 followers
January 20, 2021
*2020 Update*: From time to time, as I've learned more about non-Western narrative structure, I've thought back to this review. I think I may have missed some things here, which speaks less to the author's skill or intent and more to my lack of exposure and therefore lack of understanding of different narrative structures. For more on what I mean, this is a good essay: http://notokensjournal.com/non-fictio...


Some powerful imagery, and toward the end of the book, things start to come together and make sense, and the writing feels stronger. But the very final moments are very rushed, while the beginning drags and spends lots of pages establishing things that have minimal impact later on. Some loose ends remain, as well, and character relationships that seemed to start out with intriguing potential aren't developed. An intriguing idea rich with symbolism, but often to the detriment of characterization and plot. We're offered glimpses of interesting worldbuilding, but a sense of immersion feels always just out of reach. It read like the poem of a new creation myth stretched - just a bit too thinly - into a tale. Certainly not bad, but I had expected more from the unique premise, and had hoped for more in a novel that references such interesting places on earth and such deep history.
Profile Image for Lauren.
128 reviews13 followers
July 16, 2023
Salt Fish Girl follows two separate timelines that converge into one. In one timeline we follow the incarnation of Nu Wa, a goddess from Chinese mythology, and her relationship with a woman in nineteenth century China. In the other timeline we follow Miranda, born into the corporation city of Serendipity in the year 2044. In the search to find a cure for a peculiar smell she has been emitting since birth, Miranda finds out about the phenomenon of a supposed sickness spread through the soles of the feet, in which people experience the past in the present, and are driven to madness.
This book was a really pleasant surprise. It felt like a dizzying mix of sci-fi and magical realism, and I found the strangeness of the story very engaging and compelling. The writing was distinct, so much disturbing and haunting imagery, but there was often this lyrical undercurrent to the language that I found really beautiful. A commentary of gender and identity, on history and diaspora, and on consumption under capitalism.
The pacing in the last third of this book felt a bit messy, but other than that I really did enjoy this read. An odd but magical gem.
Profile Image for Sheldon Farough.
62 reviews
November 6, 2017
I really liked this book at the beginning but not so much by the end. I felt like it tried to do too much and left way too many questions unanswered.

I liked certain elements of this story. Beginning with the story of Nu Wa (the Chinese creation myth) is so good and I actually found this to be incredibly interesting. Then it shifts to a future dystopian story about Miranda, a little girl born with a peculiar smell. I liked all this stuff. I liked the future world with the corporations taking over and having their own cities with their own laws. I liked the mystery of Miranda's condition, the scaly legs, the hints of the connections to Nu Wa, and the memory disease. I really liked the stuff with Miranda's parents, especially with the suit that her dad uses to earn money (a virtual reality world where he "collects taxes" somehow and gets the crap kicked out of him every night). All this stuff is good and is the set up to a good dystopian story, but let me explain why it gets ruined (at least for me).

Every time the story starts to get really interesting, the author shifts to a second narrative. The second story is a different version of Nu Wa in the 19th century China. These parts of the story start out as being historical fiction with slight magical elements, then shift to being full on magic realism/fantasy. Just as this Nu Wa story starts to get interesting, the story shifts back to Miranda. Then by the time the next Miranda chapter ends, I'll forget what was going on with Nu Wa and then it shifts again. More than just the two different narratives that share only a loose connection, they are totally different genres. Historical fiction vs a slightly fantasy dystopian future don't go well together. Then there is the Nu Wa chapter where she travels to the land of Mist and Forgetfulness which is like total magic realism that doesn't fit with the Miranda chapters or the previous Nu Wa chapters.

I was also extremely dissatisfied with how both stories end. I'll try to avoid spoilers here. The Nu Wa story ends by answering a major question in the Miranda storyline. This is okay but I kind of wanted more of an actual ending to the Nu Wa plot. The Miranda plot doesn't answer questions of the tax suit, the corrupt corporations, the Nu Wa connection, or even the memory sickness. Instead the ending shifts focus to the issue of the clones (something that isn't even introduced until the last 100 pages). I was so disappointed! I found the setup in the first few chapters to be so interesting and then was left with no sense of resolution. Even the whole Nu Wa aspects feel like they were incidental to the actual story since it ends without Miranda really understanding it.

I started to feel like things in the second half of the book were just poorly written. Miranda sells the rights to the songs... for what reason? Seriously. Her parents made her promise not to sell and Miranda is never motivated by money. But this guy makes an offer, she says maybe, then no, then finally yes and takes the money and almost immediately loses it. It is set up like Miranda wants this guy to protect her from the Doctor guy, but then she takes the money and runs and is immediately caught by the doctor. Nu Wa loses the ability to speak Chinese as a curse yet when she goes home, her brother always seems to know what she is trying to say. The author constantly draws attention to this too... but it is so lazy. If you want to curse her with the inability to communicate then actually make it hard for her to communicate. She had been missing for 50 years too and then when she shows up looking as young as the day she left, everyone is just like "oh wow, you're back" Like they aren't phased by this.

This book is hard to rate because I really did like the first half of the story but I found the second half to be pretty awful.
Profile Image for Helen.
421 reviews94 followers
March 21, 2018
This is a bit of an odd book but the writing style is beautiful and gripping and I loved the way the author uses the sense of smell to bring the story to life.

I'm having a difficult time trying to explain the plot because it all gets a bit odd, but the style and themes of the book I found similar to Margaret Atwood and her MaddAddam series, and the themes also remind me of Octavia E Butler's stories. Salt Fish Girl covers creation, genetic engineering, poverty, and a world run by big businesses - but all with a feminist slant.

I have to admit, for a lot of the book I wasn't sure what was happening. There is a main story running through it but it also jumps about in time telling the story of a woman who seems to be almost a god and the creator or mother of all humans. Both stories are interesting but I didn't feel there was a proper ending to either of them; it's left as though the author just suddenly felt like stopping writing.

Even though I was a bit confused by it all I still enjoyed it. It's original and beautifully written with characters that I actually cared about. It's certainly interesting and has a lot of points to make; it makes a good book club book because it has a lot of thought starters.

If you're looking for a dystopian, cyberpunk style book and you don't mind things getting a bit weird then I'd recommend giving this a go
Profile Image for Megan.
Author 16 books482 followers
May 11, 2016
It took me a while to get into this but then we were off. I was really struck/impressed by the novel's unusual combination of fabulism and scifi, and the ways in which the two narratives are joined via queer births involving the durian tree. Vendela Vida has written on "the deoderization of smell in American literature" and this book should be in there as a model -- it's a novel (Canadian) saturated with smell, emanating odor, an accumulation of richly smelly descriptions.
Profile Image for Mook.
346 reviews32 followers
July 15, 2020
This is a story about stink, after all, a story about rot, about how life grows out of the most fetid-smelling places...

This book is one that circles around itself, moving back and forth between times and places, spiraling in towards a murky center. Nu Wa/Miranda is not a heroic protagonist. As a creator she is faulty and lonely, desperate to give life and to live life as well. As a mortal she still embodies those traits, always grasping for more: more experiences, more love, more everything.

There's a lot that could be said. There's messages about capitalistic ideas of property and ownership that are slowly becoming integrated into biological concepts like DNA (and within the book, people as well). There is the notion of what it means to be a person, how life regenerates and renews and adapts without ever fully letting go of the past. And I'm sure there's a bunch more that I'm missing.

It's not an easy read, or an easily understood one, but it's intriguing and beguiling nonetheless.
Profile Image for Rob.
431 reviews29 followers
December 5, 2011
(10/10) I'm almost not sure how to describe this one, because there's so much craziness crashing together here but somehow it all manages to work, flowing into a chaotic, jubilant, orgiastic whole. At the root of it is a kind of surrealist science fiction where everything makes more emotional than logical sense, but it turns its eye not to mere strangeness but the tortured web of race and gender and sexuality and diaspora and myths whispered quietly in the bellies of ships on that long ocean passage.

I'm lapsing into lyricism here, but books like this make me do that. At its root Salt Fish Girl is a reincarnation novel, where we see the same story in myth and in science fiction, but there are enough discontinuities and complications to make even that generality shaky. This isn't a huge book but there are epics in its pages, and depending on your perspective that makes it either overstuffed or a tour de force. But somehow it all manages to integrate into one emotion, an ancestral haunting, a mistake made long ago that you're doomed to live out, and the sense of history that can accompany even the worst history. Salt Fish Girl is a reclaiming of history in the name of the future, and a masterful one.
Profile Image for Iris.
318 reviews322 followers
June 22, 2023
Re-Read with my book club! Maybe a little bit clunkier on the second pass through, but still one of my all time favorites about the Mythic Queerness, and the mud-slicken grimy place where we can find our origins, again and again.

A book club member said “it’s like reading echoes, like a stone skipping across the water.”
Profile Image for Clara.
58 reviews19 followers
December 4, 2022
Easily going on my Best of 2022 shelf!! Which, considering some of the other titles on that shelf (Wild Seed, Black Sun) and the proclivity for deity-like characters, could mean either I've been searching for God this year OR I'm not over my Percy Jackson era....

As Luke, who gifted me this book, has said -- it's intensely olfactory. If you read Salt Fish Girl, Larissa Lai will soon fill your nostrils with sweet peppery cat piss. Some reviewers didn't like this gift (???) and many of the negative reviews point out aspects of the book I loved, like the narrative structure that hopped between centuries and the elements of folklore, magic-realism and corporate Canadian dystopia.

My only critique is that the ending did feel a little rushed, I wish Lai had taken more time for a denouement.

Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,360 reviews795 followers
November 15, 2018
This book strongly reminded me of The Incarnations for reasons both critical and facile. Asian superficialities aside, the intimations of immortality in both works were of an unfortunately similar feel: a disjointed narrative ploddingly fleshed out with a prose whose effort spent on grasping onto similes and metaphors was painfully palpable, although SFG didn't have as noticeable an issue with basic grammar (you have to live the rules before you break them). Both book synopses sounded wonderfully singular on paper, SFG even more so due to its overt queer themes, but both lack the infrastructure necessary for making a cohesive entity out of their respective aims. I recall comparing TI to a series of pages on history found on Wikipedia, and while I can't say the same about SFG, I feel it wouldn't have hurt it to slow down and focus more on the early mystics rather than try to attempt to fit nearly 4000 years of mythology morphing into biotechnology in less than 300 pages. As it stands, the story flew by nauseatingly quickly in too many places, and I personally would have been fine if the narrative had spent all of its time in pre-Shang Dynasty China and less time in Year 2044 Canada.

As I implied previously, the initiating scene of this novel set thousands of years ago struck a deeper chord in my reading tastes than did the modernity of a choronoscape less than three decades in the future. After that first sequence ended, I held out for something that would thread the narrative and motivations together, but what largely occurred was a clinking stringing together of characters and conspiracies that never quite grew into something greater than its parts. Queer romance brightened my reading once in a while, but not long enough for any thematic continuity beyond a certain breed a parallelism with various chimeras. The worst culprit was the ending where various plot points were hastily resolved; various characters magically appear and disappear forever; and the landscape, formerly close quartered and predatory, is somehow now wide open with all its secrets on display. Rushed and confused is not a great way of ending a tale that had so much potential. Style over substance doesn't work for everyone, or perhaps it was the other around: too many ideas, too little coalescing.

I was excited to come across a copy of this work in an indie used book store in central California of all places, but I feel some class must have read this on assignment (the store is in the downtown UC Davis area), partly because of the notes drawn in the beginning and on a science expo leaflet used as impromptu bookmark, partly because of the whole eclectic nature of the work. It's books like these that make me err in thinking modern publishing has grown too lax in contemporary tomes, but I need only glance at the works that continue to be held up as classics in order to realize that there's less impressive works in every era, and at least these days no one tries to pretend 9% of the human population satisfactorily represents the world entire. Anyway, I feel one can never have too much queer nonwhite sci-fi, but this one is not my cup of tea. I'll always be looking out for the next potential genre/gender bender, as what's the point of surviving the 21st century if the reading doesn't reflect it.
69 reviews
November 27, 2016
Easily one of the worst books I've ever read. No focus, virtually no cohesion, so oversaturated with metaphors and fables that nothing had any real meaning. Seems like the author had dozens of ideas that would have been interesting separately, but decided to make them into one book, resulting in confusion and a lack of strong narrative throughout.
Profile Image for Deepti.
134 reviews
November 6, 2022
this book wad ambitious in a lot of ways however the futuristic world felt very rushed, confusing and thus fell short. I enjoyed the magical realism aspect of Nu WA’s previous lives a lot though
Profile Image for Zeyn Joukhadar.
Author 8 books966 followers
April 12, 2023
This is one of the most brilliant, finely wrought pieces of fiction I have ever read. An instant favorite, one I’ll be studying and rereading for years to come.
Profile Image for Karis.
94 reviews5 followers
July 19, 2022
i really liked this one.

it is kind of entertaining to read through the lower-star reviews and see, generally speaking, (1) who is writing them and (2) what the complaints are. "show don't tell" rhetoric often doesn't get at how oration and narration, and conceptions of linear/nonlinear time and the passage of it, occur in other languages and forms of storytelling. also conceptions of "good" and "bad" science when wielded to credit/discredit speculative fiction.

anyway i think that the sparse (but also, like, really illustrative, every detail is intentionally placed) and matter-of-fact manner of this book leaves tens of questions (about the characters, about this odd world, about the rules we have managed to glean and thousands of rules we have yet to see and understand from one read alone) in the wake of each sentence, and i like that. good books ought to leave you feeling like you need to reread and revisit them again. i also really want to read larissa lai's other novels and poems because how else does she play with story!! how else does she play with genre!! what else does she speculate and reveal about humanity!! questions questions
Profile Image for Valérie Forgues.
Author 11 books60 followers
November 2, 2021
"J'ai relâché un moment mon étreinte autour de la graine, puis je l'ai resserrée plus fort que jamais entre mes formes onduleuses. La chair jaune a transpiré, exsudant un parfum. Sous ma prise ferme, quelque chose à l'intérieur de la graine a semblé remuer. J'ai senti une légère et brève vibration. Alors même que j'enlaçais le coeur du fruit, le fruit m'enlaçait. Ses acides étranges m'ont en quelque sorte déconfite. J'ai trouvé une petite ouverture dans la graine. Je me suis encore réduite et j'ai rampé à l'intérieur. Je suis devenue la graine et la graine est devenue moi. Tout ce qui en germerait m'appartiendrait."
Profile Image for c..
95 reviews
January 28, 2018
weird af but excellent book about genetic modification, building and extending mythology, the post-human. olivia butler vibes for sure.
7 reviews
November 30, 2021
I think my favourite part was when it ended. Never again do I have to read about a girl that smells like cat piss and is half fruit with her cyborg/clone/carp girlfriend. I am finally free from needing to suffer through Nu Wa’s chapters where I read a description of her taking a piss on a floating island that she was drawn to by someone called Edwina for no real reason.

All it would have taken for me to like this book was a coherent story with characters that actually have emotions and don’t just go “oh no… oh well” at every situation. The dialogue sounded like it was taken from My Immortal and just de-gothed with adults talking like the creations of sleep deprived 13 year old girls on wattpad who fantasize about being sold to one direction (ok that was mean. 13 year girls are still learning and practicing their craft and aren’t subjected to the same edits and rewrites that published authors are).

All the points that could have had some emotional impact were glossed over in favour of descriptions of what the characters were smelling. The book is about smell, and a plethora of other topics jammed in 269 pages, and is so hastily done that every one of them feels redundant.

Profile Image for Degenerate Chemist.
870 reviews28 followers
March 20, 2022
"Salt Fish Girl" can best be described as a dark modern Chinese folktale. This is another fantasty novel that I think falls more into the literary fiction/magical realism genre.

How much you appreciate this book depends on how comfortable you are with Chinese folktales. The combination of liminal spaces, the outrageous, and moral lessons reminded me of "Journey to the West."

The book is an exploration of colonialism, exploitation, and gender roles. The book is surprisingly dense thematically. The prose is gorgeous and perfectly captures the feeling of liminal spaces.
Profile Image for Lex.
3 reviews1 follower
April 22, 2022
loved this book so much! absolutely gorgeous writing n had me hooked every moment
Profile Image for Charlotte.
261 reviews13 followers
May 10, 2023
Will definitely reread, my stupid teacher had so many bad takes
Profile Image for Julian Spergel.
29 reviews1 follower
September 9, 2020
Reading this book is like being pulled through a dream-like landscape. The book follows dream logic, so I think it would be incorrect to say the characters act against their self interest, only that the plot refuses to stay still for even a moment. I really enjoyed the hypnagogic experience of reading this book for the same reason I enjoy watching vaporwave music videos. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Clair.
83 reviews19 followers
March 7, 2018
The story alternates between two settings: 19th century China and a future Pacific Northwest, it spirals around, back and forth between the two tales. A deity, Nu-Wa creates human beings. She chooses to become one of them and falls in love with a girl who sells salt fish at the market. Miranda is a young girl living in the 2040s, who has a strange affliction that her skin smells of durian fruit. The story is a portrayal of both their lives, seeped in fantasy and magic realism.

Packed full of powerful imagery that has you smelling and tasting as well as visualising the world within the pages. Lai’s writing is beautiful as the words flow from the page. Weirdly beautiful. The plot itself was muddled and often lacked logical sense as it jumped around. Several times I had to re-read sections to connect the dots. But this fit into the aura of mystery that the book has. It was highly readable and captivated me to the end although loose ends remain. You are given glimpses of world-building, of a very imaginative future woven in the tale. The ideas are wonderful and compelling, often surreal but not always making sense or flitting well together. The creationist theme which ran throughout the novel from the first mythology to the genetic engineering was wonderfully interlaced through the different sections. Science ethics, disability, corporate power, feminism and many elements of interesting sci-fi are introduced however many ideas lacked substance as they are not fully explored.

Overall I’d recommend reading the book for the beautiful writing that engages your senses and emotions and the imagination within.

I’d recommend to anyone who likes: science fiction, fantasy, science ethics, feminism, magic realism,ad
Profile Image for Jain.
214 reviews54 followers
November 16, 2012
A blend of mythological fantasy and dystopic science fiction that didn't really work for me. The story alternates between two settings: 19th century China and a future Pacific Northwest. There are enough unexplored science fictional aspects to the China setting that those portions of the book seem less fantastical than they do surreal. Which would be fine--albeit not to my taste--were it not for the "unexplored" bit; the surreality felt more sloppy than deliberate to me. Similarly, a lot of the futuristic elements in the Pacific Northwest setting seem to exist merely to be quirky and interesting, but don't make sense otherwise. There are still a lot of great ideas in the book; they just never cohere properly.

The part that I hated, though, was that the main characters continually do inexplicable things and then, when called out on their actions by others, can offer no explanation. Now, obviously, people sometimes act inexplicably, but people also tend to be very skilled at self-justification. Even if there's no rational reason for doing something, that doesn't mean a reason--however half-baked--won't be manufactured after the fact. That the main characters can't do so means that it feels as though periodically they turn into automatons whose only job is to further the plot.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,317 reviews976 followers
February 20, 2023
‘This is what it’s like to drown: You take a last look at the sky, a last breath, slowly. Air goes into your lungs and then you are under water. You let the air out molecule by molecule, realizing for the first time how precious it is, this thing that feels so much like nothing, neither liquid nor solid. Your eyes are open wide. The world goes cool and green and you keep falling. There are shapes in the darkness, fronds of river weed waving, dark indescribable things that float and then sink with you. You never knew you were so heavy. The density of your flesh has never been of such prime importance. The air leaks out of you in spite of your mightiest attempts to hold it. You need more but there is none. Leafy things flail. The water’s coolness is no longer soothing. You gasp. Water rushes into your lungs and floods them. Your eyes stare wider. You thrash. You want more than anything to live, to be able to rise again, but you keep falling. The river is bottomless. It pushes you along in the direction of its current like an impatient auntie, but it won’t let you to the surface. Your eyes are wide open, but slowly everything goes black. You begin to float beneath the surface. You are conscious of the coolness again, of how green everything is. You move with the water and through it. You have left your body far behind. The river has become a part of you.’
27 reviews13 followers
March 12, 2018
I really wanted to like this book because it was written by a queer immigrant woman of color about science-fictional themes that I greatly like. Unfortunately the book was very disappointing.

The writing is very bad in the first half of the book—it's very "tell not show." The author has an unfortunate taste in clichés and very little sense of pacing. I would love to never hear the phrases "cat piss" and "truth be told" again. The story introduced interesting threads and then dropped them abruptly.

I did like two things about the book: the passage on pearls and mouths, and the passage on the language elixir and its effects. As a second-generation Chinese-American I empathized deeply with those two themes.
Profile Image for Skylar.
61 reviews3 followers
March 15, 2021
I guess there were some interesting elements to this book, especially in the beginning, but at the end it just got weird. Like if someone asked me to explain what happened in the last 100 pages I’m not sure I’d be able to give an accurate summary, it was kind of all over the place. It didn’t help that Miranda’s character seemed to shift personalities to accommodate the plot.
Some really cool concepts too, but nothing was ever explored in depth. It was supposed to be a futuristic 2062 but like honestly we only ever got glimpses and I was just confused by the world building. Same with the passages that took place in the past.

I’m not sure what I even think after finishing this book, I just honestly feel confused and don’t really want to even think about why.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 224 reviews

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