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Salt Fish Girl

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  1,010 ratings  ·  151 reviews
"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
Paperback, 269 pages
Published August 4th 2002 by Thomas Allen Publishers
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Average rating 3.72  · 
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*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:


Some powerful imagery, and toward the end of the book, things start to come together
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. ...more
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
Apr 22, 2015 rated it liked it
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.

Sheldon Farough
Nov 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
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
Nov 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
(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 pas ...more
Jan 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: class
weird af but excellent book about genetic modification, building and extending mythology, the post-human. olivia butler vibes for sure.
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 wonderful ...more
Julian Spergel
Sep 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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.
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 powe
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 ...more
Mar 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
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
Jul 02, 2007 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this--it has Lai's hallmark of mythical realism coupled with some harder-science-fiction aspects that i found intriguing. I also appreciated the political critiques of genetically modified food and corporate power, and found the themes of disability/disease and the body to be thought-provoking. ...more
I just couldn't with this book. It started with the bad science, or maybe the odd dual story telling that never came together for me (not that the rest of the story telling really worked) but the real issue was the unconsidered feminism. Yes, I'm sure this is meant to be feminist, but having a group of genetically engineered enslaved women clones decide as part of their liberation plans to grow durian that can (somehow???) get women pregnant just by eating it. They don't, however, tell women who ...more
Tina Romanelli
Dec 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book defies description and has only the bare outlines of a narrative to collect and organize its poetry. Some moments verge on the frightening, but the beauty lies in the normalizing of intimacy. I don't think those are quite the right words, but the relationship between the creatress and the salt fish woman that travels through space and time and body is simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring. ...more
Jeffrey Bumiller
Aug 10, 2020 rated it it was ok
This was underwhelming. It's half-baked and attempts too many twists and turns that just don't land. The writing is not great, but I wouldn't give up on Larissa Lai, I might read her again sometime down further down the road.

Pros: contains the phrase, "pissy pussy"

Cons: contains the word, "sexily"
2.5 stars. This book demands a lot of the reader. So much of the story is told in metaphor, subtext, and symbols that the only way to really derive any meaning from it is by analyzing it, and literary analysis of that sort is just not something that appeals to me when I'm reading for pleasure. ...more
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
Great premise, execution not to my liking.

I found the world building ineffective, except rare instances of description like orchestra in a box and the business suit. I kept waiting for the parallels between the stories to meet up, but found myself confusing the two characters instead.

Some great turns of phrase like ancestral cough, but not enough for me to recommend.
Nov 04, 2018 added it
Shelves: read-2018
This was such a fascinating, and at times perplexing novel. I’m not quite sure how to rate it, but it’s surely one of the most unique things I’ve perhaps ever read.
May 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
consider me confused
May 20, 2021 rated it did not like it
Absolutely could not finish it. I couldn't figure out what was what. It jumped back and forth but made no sense. I tired for over a 100 pages and gave up. ...more
Bethany Powell
Apr 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
A surreal narrative of a mythic past and strange future with a continuity in survival.

Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl was introduced to me in a lit course about cyberpunk and while it didn't feel like it was quite of that world, it is definitely speculative and I'm not sure what else you could accurately call it. It is of its own kind. Much like the protagonist.

Miranda is conceived almost miraculously by elderly parents--even more miraculous when you consider that they seem to have never been intim
Cole Jack
Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai was originally published in 2002 by Thomas Allen Publishers. The plot of the story follows two characters--Nu Wa in 18th to 19th century China and Miranda in the Canadian Pacific Northwest of the 22nd century--and switches back and forth between their perspectives and locations. The piece merges the genres of speculative fiction, magical realism, and myth in wonderful ways that make the book rewarding to read numerous times. Lai's writing style is particularly movin ...more
Apr 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book was deeply weird, and it took me a lot longer to read than most books.

Part fairy tale, part dystopian future (but the quietly desperate kind, not the flash-bang exciting kind), Salt Fish Girl centers around two stories, Nu-Wa, in 19th century China, and Miranda in British Columbia in 2044. The stories weave in and out of each other, but never in a totally satisfying way. Expect more questions than answers at the end. But somehow, I'm still glad I read it? Unsettling for sure, but very
Aug 21, 2013 rated it liked it
Intriguing and well-written, but overall not a great book. Lai focusses on the intertwining lives of two women in two different time periods and hints at more connection between them. Reality and the laws of nature are blurred as the story progresses. Very in depth descriptions of smells throughout the novel to the point where other sense were almost ignored.
While I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to just anyone, I would mark Larissa Lai as an author to watch.
Deena Metzger
Mar 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Larissa Lai has a powerful gift for capturing the wondrous and the terrible, for witnessing each possible deadly trajectory of this time, for facing every horror, and yet is faithful to the undying magic of water, longing and life force. A strange, compelling, demanding, entrancing, insistent, relentless, powerful, imaginative, completely grounded and watery book. If you love Story and truth-telling, if you are willing to bear witness, if you trust the imagination, this book is for you.
Nov 27, 2016 rated it did not like it
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. ...more
Jul 15, 2013 rated it liked it
Interesting mix of post-apocalypse and folk lore. Strong beginning and middle, it doesn't really end (although the implication is that the same things will continue to occur in a cyclical fashion, perhaps philosophically deep but not particularly satisfying). ...more
Jacob Wren
Jun 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
How come I hadn't already read this book?

Larissa Lai writes: “How easily we abandon those who have suffered the same persecutions as we have. How quickly we grow impatient with their inability to transcend the conditions of our lives.”
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Slow to start and it doesn't quite all come together in the end, but the vividly imagined mix of surrealism, folktale and cyberpunk makes for such an intoxicating ride that the fact that it wasn't a consistently satisfying one seems almost neither here nor there ...more
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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 fina ...more

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