Book review: Show and Shadow, by Dorothy Tse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm

Snow and Shadow
by Dorothy Tse
East Slope Publishing
4 stars

Amy Russell

The opening story in Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse's new collection of short stories is starkly Kafkaesque. In Woman Fish, instead of a giant beetle, the metamorphosis that takes place is of a piscatorial nature. A man wakes up next to his wife to find she has turned into a fish. And this is not the only strange awakening of the book - in Head, a mother awakes to find that her son's head has disappeared overnight.

But the surrealism in Tse's collection is far from macabre. Instead, the bizarre tales of sexual exploitation, family dynamics and intimate relationships present a charming and vividly magical world. A dreamlike quality pervades these pages, as we accept such strange and disturbing imagery in each story, then slip into another alternate reality that is just as odd.

As translator Nicky Harman writes in the book's introduction: "These surreal tales - fantastic in parts - are made the more effective for being grounded firmly in reality at the same time."

It is this juxtaposition that makes Tse's writing so effective, and its themes all the more frightening, yet captivating.

Familiar glimpses of Hong Kong sit within the book's tales of twisted realities (where the logical solution to a missing limb is to replace it or match it with one of your own), adding to the paradoxical feeling of simultaneous discomfort and enticement.

A winner of multiple literary awards in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Tse envelops her readers in obscurity through bold, imaginative and artfully spare prose. Taut and unsentimental it may be, but the reader will find it hard not to be intrigued by the characters and their circumstances - even if we only know them as "K" or "J". This just adds to their elusive appeal.

Tse's stories are both "beguiling and deeply disturbing", writes Harman, who plays no small part in contributing to their mesmerising quality through her fluid translation. Harman captures the cadence and nuances of Tse's writing, imbued with dark humour and violence.

Snow and Shadow challenges the boundaries and limitations of our narrow, conventional realities and forces us to re-examine our perspective of the world.

It is a book that requires bravery and an open mind. But, armed with these tools, many will find that this enchanting collection of transformative tales will, like a shadow, follow them long after the final page.