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Review: ‘Bestiary,’ an immigrant tale that puts the (filthy, brutal) realism in magical realism

Jacket cover for "Bestiary," by K-Ming Chang.
(One World)

On the Shelf

Bestiary

By K-Ming Chang
One World: 272 pages, $27

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K-Ming Chang’s debut novel, “Bestiary,” bursts open like delicious fruit on the edge of rot. Believe me when I say that’s a good thing. Many readers have savored magical realism, which, loosely defined, includes books like “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel and “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. But Chang, a Pushcart Prize-winning poet, brings realism to the forefront of her take on the genre. You’ll never read another book filled with so much excrement and decay, at least until Chang writes her next.

From the beginning, the reality is harsh and the magic is real in this tale of three women of Taiwanese descent — Grandmother, Mother, Daughter — whose narratives braid the story together. Mother literally beats the crap (and urine too) out of the daughter and her brother, with an extra side effect for the daughter: After a particularly savage attack, she grows a tiger’s tail.

The bulk of the story takes place not in Taiwan but in Arkansas and California, where the ragtag family struggles to construct a life in a society it doesn’t understand well. The daughter is particularly confused about the purpose of mysterious holes speckling the family’s California backyard.

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Since the daughter is queer, there’s some symbolism to read into that central mystery. Symbolism is everywhere in “Bestiary,” especially in absent things — holes; the missing gold ingot everyone believes Agong, the grandfather, swallowed before immigrating; and the mother’s three missing toes. Mother tells her children they were munched off by Hu Gu Po, , and it’s this in stories the tiger god that loves children’s toes as much as peanuts.

The stories of Hu Gu Po and other Taiwanese mythology aren’t used winkingly here: Their physical manifestations are the novel’s reality. And they manage both to ground these women’s experiences in tradition and to help them take flight. As the mystical plot thickens, the daughter finds letters in those backyard holes that turn out to be written by Grandmother — Ama — long, broken streams of consciousness that fill in the holes in the larger story too.

“Little Eyes” puts the Argentinian surrealist alongside writers — Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison — whose horrors expose the rotten parts of ourselves.

There’s nothing new about a queer coming-of-age narrative combined with a multigenerational account of family trauma: Think of Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” Kristen Arnett’s “Mostly Dead Things,” Tobias Wolf’s “This Boy’s Life,” “Running With Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs... The list could go on. However, Chang not only ups the intersectional ante but also raises the stakes with vivid, earthy language. A rising sun “sags in the sky like a scrotum” one day; the next, it defecates gold. The daughter describes her mother’s vaccination scar as “puckered like a nipple when it was cold,” while her girlfriend Ben’s “opaled her skin” in a way that made her want to dig it out “and swallow its pearl.” Ama conjectures that “maybe god [is] a hole we keep filling with our dead.”

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"Bestiary" author K-Ming Chang.
K-Ming Chang, whose debut novel is “Bestiary.”
(Trina Quach)

These small observations merge into larger ideas, painting a portrait of the daughter’s need for and loathing of her mother. After the mother survives a disaster she is thought to have died in, the daughter says, “It was easier to want her living when she was dead. We wanted one more day of missing her. We wanted it back, our grief — we wanted it real — but grief was just another thing we lost, another thing she took from us.”

The irony is that Ama and the mother, who both married men from the Chinese mainland to secure their families’ future, brought only more trauma into their lives. Chang’s commitment to describing starkly makes “Bestiary” a sometimes-uncomfortable experience by design. But as Chang opens up multiple perspectives, there are moments of relief and rest. This is not a book about abuse qua abuse, but about how abuse travels through a family, carried forward unto the next generation. Ama writes: “The only cure is to survive/ what lives off you,” a desperately sad commentary on motherhood but a sad truth for women in cultures where childbearing is not really a choice.

Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s first novel, “The Last Story of Mina Lee,” follows an assimilated daughter solving the puzzle of her Korean mother and her own identity.

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Each woman finds a different path through and beyond the suffering. For Ama, it’s her storytelling; for the mother, a newfound closeness in the care of the increasingly addled grandfather, who still bears the scars of Japanese brutality during World War II. Mother also becomes reconciled to and even proud of her daughter’s American sense of freedom.

The daughter expresses that freedom in her love of a woman, Ben, who happens to come from Ningxia in mainland China. Expressing that love, she unleashes an exemplary flourish of symbolism, a showcase of the author at her supple best. “Ben and I agree,” the daughter says, “that in the spring, we’ll cut off our hair and scatter it here so the birds can collect the strands in their beaks and build their nests out of us. We’ll let them breed in the black of our hair.” Instead of missing words or missing toes, we now envision intertwined lives. Her lyrical imagery promises a better future, and “Bestiary” promises more great work to come from K-Ming Chang.

In ‘Transcendent Kingdom,’ Yaa Gyasi’s second novel, she focuses on America — its promise and peril — and on one Ghanaian American family in Alabama.

Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.


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