What do you expect when you pick up a novel – very probably your first – from Taiwan? A spiky assertion of independence, perhaps, or wistful, Japanese-inspired fables? The literary landscape of mainland China has begun to take shape for western readers, but that of Taiwan remains a blank – despite the island’s sophisticated and long-established publishing industry. The English translation of Wu Ming-Yi’s intriguing fourth work of fiction simultaneously plunges the reader into the melting pot of contemporary Taiwanese fiction and refuses any attempt to define it.
It is easy to see why Wu’s English-language publishers compare his latest novel to the work of Murakami and David Mitchell. His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. Semi-magical events occur throughout the novel: people and animals behave in mysterious ways without quite knowing why they are doing so; and, in a Murakami-esque touch, there’s even a prominent cat. But beyond these superficial similarities lies an earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity.