I heard about Fish in Exile via Sarah McCarry’s post about it on her old blog, and re-reading that post now I would agree with her assessment that this book “is addictive, but for quite some time you have no idea what it’s even about.” The day I started it, I tried to explain it to someone, and I think all I managed to express was my befuddlement. That befuddlement remained for a fair chunk of the book, but I didn’t much mind, because on a sentence level, Nao’s writing is gorgeous. Like: “Light shifts, lifting the four corners of the room into an origami box” (16). Or: “I stand there like a front burner gazing at the stars and the dismal, faraway sea” (45). Or: “I imagine moving through the sea of winter with a boat, a pair of oars, and light” (87) Or: “The clouds take turns combing each other’s manes” (133).

The book is about a married couple, Ethos and Catholic, who are in a deep state of grief over their dead children, but that description of it doesn’t get at its sometimes-surreal strangeness. The six sections of the book have different narrators and different forms; there are sections of dialogue that recall a play (perhaps a Greek tragedy); Greek myth is there, too: a fairly great/hilarious retelling of the Persephone myth makes up a large part of one of the sections. At one point in the retelling, Hades is talking about how great things have been since he brought Persephone to the underworld: “It’s like a festival down there. Banquets and film screenings left and right. Of course, the only film we watch in the underworld is Satantango” (77). (Ethos’s mother is a classics professor, and there are a few amusing Anne Carson jokes/references in this section too.)

But when it’s not being formally inventive or surreal or funny, Fish in Exile gets at the emotional experiences that Ethos and Catholic are having. They seem to alternate in who is more sad and more stuck at any given moment; their shared but separate grief strains their partnership. Early in the book, Ethos (the husband) tells Catholic he’s “in exile” and notes she doesn’t understand; he left his job when the children died and seems to spend his days aimlessly passing time at home or by the ocean. Later, it’s Catholic who seems more stuck in sorrow; there’s a gorgeous several-page section near the end of the book talking about her pain which I would love to quote but can’t really, because it’s all so good. Despite how adrift I felt when I started this book, I was caught up in it by the time I got to the (very good) ending, which I read on the subway home from work, totally rapt.

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