PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

FireWife by Tinling Choong

Nan A. Talese,


Japanese men, British dogs and American women are the three most pampered creatures in the world, according to Tinling Choong. That doesn't necessarily make them good choices for reincarnation - the next life may be punishment rather than reward. But chances are they're in the right karmic ballpark.

FireWife - A Story of Fire and Water, is at times an exhilarating novella about women and marks the arrival of a fresh and interesting voice in fiction. The central character of FireWife is Nin, who repackages concept consumerism for a boutique restaurant chain.

She has a loving husband, a decidedly undeveloped character, who understands perfectly when she says she needs to escape for five months to take photographs. Nin is, of course, trying to escape herself and her past, which includes the accidental death of her little sister back in childhood Malaysia. She drowned in a well of tapioca after Nin abandoned responsibility, which has bound up her life and made her a prisoner of her actions.

Choong has opted for an intriguing structure, alternating chapters between an airborne Nin who can see the past in her business-class window on her night-time flights from city to city and the subjects of her pictures.

The photographer captures the image. The writer sets the picture in the context of its subject, providing at times startling back stories. It smacks a little of some writing class or a coffee-shop game of imagining the life of the person sitting across the room. Who might they be? Where have they come from? Where are they going? Are they content? What baggage do they carry and will they learn to let it go?

These vignettes, though, are simple and provocative, requiring the reader to empathise with a life imagined. Some of them work quite well: 14-year-old Ut, Number 32, sitting in a Bangkok window waiting to be bought for sex; the battered wife standing on a New York bridge, summoning up the courage to defy the men who hold her in misery; the Chinese woman born in Japan who lies naked on a table in a Tokyo bar so men can eat sushi off of her nipples and dip into the soy sauce and wasabi pooling in her navel.

Choong doesn't overplay the Oriental mysticism card, although the contemporary need for writers to include spiritual guides even in an Asian setting is becoming rather tedious and suggests an inability to imagine characters free of the cultural baggage that makes the Lord Buddha the arbiter of happiness.

There's a lot about sex in FireWife and its liberating functions, which perhaps only women readers will get. There's a lot of abuse here, too, and it's unclear whether Choong endorses it as a sort of female rite of passage to power over men.

A fundamental but far from fatal weakness of FireWife is the recourse to 'clever' devices, such as CAPITALISING PHRASES AND SENTENCES, stretching wooorrds, or slipping/ into poetry, even/ for a whole chapter.

FireWife is a 200-page showcase of Malaysian-Chinese-American Choong's many talents that suggests a good writer in the making.