This is a review of the perfect gem of a novella that is The Fish Girl (Xoum Seizure 2017) by Mirandi Stanton (Riwoe), winner of the 2017 Seizure Viva la Novella Prize, but before I explore that I have two relevant comments. The first is to commend the high quality of Australian writing – especially by women – that I have been fortunate to read and review recently. We are breeding some seriously talented writers and I am so enjoying the breadth and depth of their work. Secondly, and this relates particularly to novellas, I reviewed two of the previous winners of the Seizure Viva la Novella Prize (Christy Collins and Julie Proudfoot) and couldn’t speak highly enough of their work. And now, here we have another. I’m happy to say the high bar has been surpassed yet again.
The Fish Girl is in the same league as Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree series. Mirandi’s voice is clear and assured as she envelopes us in a sensory experience inspired by Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Four Dutchmen’. Mina is an Indonesian girl living a simple life in a fishing village when she is chosen to accompany a Dutch merchant and work in his household. Her life is irrevocably changed by the people she meets and the choices she makes, and by the decisions made by those more powerful around her.
This tale is a parable and a fairy story grounded in the rich and luscious detail of the tropics. The language is deceptively simple and the dialogue natural. Native words, customs and objects are deftly incorporated into the narrative with such ease and grace that we feel magically transported to the setting. The themes – of love and yearning, of betrayal and sacrifice, of shame and longing – are universal, yet poignantly specific to this girl, this landscape, this one young woman’s story. Each character is perfectly drawn. The sounds of the market, the smells and tastes of the food, the temper of the weather and the sea, all are engaging and curious.
Like the best fairy tales, this story has both tragedy and hope at its heart, and a mystical and profound message, and would make the ideal gift for someone special in your life.