From the beginning of her writing career, Amy Tan has investigated the perplexities of mother-daughter relationships and the complexities...

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“Saving Fish from Drowning”
by Amy Tan
G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 474 pp., $26.95

From the beginning of her writing career, Amy Tan has investigated the perplexities of mother-daughter relationships and the complexities of cultural interfaces. She doesn’t abandon these strands entirely in her latest novel, but weaves them into a wider net.

In “Saving Fish from Drowning,” Tan’s cast features a dozen hapless American tourists in Southeast Asia. The story of their ill-starred trip is narrated by the ghost of the woman who had organized the tour and was supposed to lead it. But Bibi Chen, a Bay Area philanthropist and Asian art expert, dies just days before the departure date. The tour-group members, many of whom were Bibi’s friends, elect to honor her memory by going ahead with the trip.

In death, Bibi has acquired the ability to enter the minds of all the travelers. We get to know the innermost thoughts of the timid fellow who has been appointed as her replacement, the dog trainer with a hit TV show, the neophyte political activist, the art curator and her pre-teen daughter, the bamboo grower and his teenage son.

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Amy Tan

The author of “Saving Fish from Drowning” will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Central Library. Sponsored by the Washington Center for the Book and the Elliott Bay Book Co.

Free admission on first-come, first-served basis (206-624-6600 or

In pre-publication interviews for the book, Tan says she modeled her adventure on the classic “Canterbury Tales.” You’ll catch an unmistakable whiff of “Gilligan’s Island,” too — behind their expensive sunglasses and designer clothes, these folks are goofballs.

Each of the characters perceives things through a unique lens of experience. Their feelings and reactions are further interpreted by their spectral but certainly not circumspect narrator. Thus any one event can take on sharply different meanings.

While Bibi can insinuate herself even into dreams, she is unable to sway the group’s mid-trip decision to meddle with her carefully designed itinerary. The travelers end up entering Myanmar, also known as Burma, at an unsanctioned checkpoint. Most of them are political naïfs, only vaguely aware that this country is run by a repressive military junta which goes by the acronym SLORC.

The impetuous change of plans puts the tourists in harm’s way. Shortly after they ensconce themselves at a remote lakeside resort in the jungle, they are kidnapped by desperate Karen tribesmen. The Karen, long brutalized by SLORC, have clung to a tribal myth about a white savior who will restore their power. When they see the American teenager do card tricks — making things disappear into thin air — they believe he may be their long-awaited salvation.

But the notion of salvation is a tricky one. Can one be redeemed by doing charitable deeds, by finding love, by abnegating self? Even the title plays with this — it derives from a myth about a fisherman’s semantical solution to enriching himself while purporting to engage in selfless activity. He pulls fish from the water to save them from drowning. When they die anyway, he may as well sell them!

Tan doesn’t shirk from opining on the abysmal situation in Myanmar today. (The military renamed the country in 1990, after losing the election but taking over the government anyway.) But she does this mostly by presenting her characters’ narrow perspectives on the subject — and then funneling them through Bibi, who may be omniscient but also is terribly quirky.

The result is an unorthodox overview — a study in absurdity. That doesn’t make it any less grounded in cruel reality, but how will readers take it?

Tan is betting that by juggling magical realism, romantic comedy, mystery and political farce, her book will seduce readers into turning the pages and consciousness ultimately will be raised.

The gamble doesn’t quite pay off. Tan has great intentions and loads of literary chutzpah, but the book’s busyness and breadth tend to obscure its depth. Readers may drown in distractions.