Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 23, 2021

The Fish Girl, by Mirandi Riwoe (2017 co-winner of Seizure Viva La Novella Prize)

I am very late to the party with this one.  It won Seizure’s Viva la Novella Prize in 2017, and was nominated for the Stella Prize the following year. It’s been reviewed by all the bloggers in our network, including Jennifer, Kate, Kim, Sue and Marg, to whom I owe thanks because it was her review in 2021 that made me realise I didn’t have a copy of it.  I almost always buy the winners of this prize, but I somehow I overlooked this one…

What can I possibly add?

Readers of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea will recognise the idea of bringing to life a minor character from another novel.  Rhys invented a compassionate back story for the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  Riwoe brings the reader the story of the misrepresented ‘Malay trollop’ in W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’.

It’s not one of Maugham’s better stories.  It’s only five pages long, and three pages of it is devoted to establishing the deep and abiding bond between the four Dutchmen who formed the crew of a trading vessel.  This friendship is severed by the Captain’s ‘susceptibility’ to the charms of the native girls.  His dreams of retirement with one of these girls is quoted at the beginning of Riwoe’s story:

One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese.  They were so small and so gentle and they made no noise, and he would dress her in silk sarongs and give her gold chains to wear round her neck and gold bangles to put on her arms.  (‘The Four Dutchmen (1928) , in ‘The World Over, The Collected Stories Vol II,  by W. Somerset Maugham, The Reprint Society London, 1954, p. 1082-3)

Maugham was writing in the days of Empire, portraying the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, so it’s interesting to look at how he portrays ‘the Orient’.  Unlike Kipling and Conrad, Maugham does not represent it as dark, primitive and threatening. The threats and ‘uncivilised behaviour’ in his ‘The Four Dutchmen’ come from these seemingly genial and contented Europeans.

Maugham’s emphasis on the grotesque fatness of the men and the delicacy of the ‘pretty little Javanese’ of the Captain’s fantasy makes the incongruity obvious.  Women, of course, have long been the subject of the superstition of seamen, and the narration establishes early on that these four men didn’t welcome passengers and only tolerated the narrator as an occasional fourth player at cards.  Her presence is unwelcome.

..on one of the trips the Captain took with him a Malay girl that he had been carrying on with and I wondered it if was the one he had been so eager to see when I was on board.  The other three had been against her coming—what did they want with a woman in the ship?  It would spoil everything—but the captain insisted and she came.  I think they were all jealous of her.  On that journey they didn’t have the fun they usually had.  (p.1084)

That jealousy explodes into violence.  Two of the crew are shot, and the remaining two are later tried for murder of the missing girl.

The evidence was flimsy and they were acquitted.  But all through the East Indies they knew that the supercargo and the chief engineer had executed justice on the trollop who had caused the death of the two men they loved.  (p.1085)

This line transforms the victim of murder — the ‘pretty little Javanese’ — into a ‘trollop’ who deserved rough justice because she was held responsible for the two men’s violence.  She has no name, she has no back story, and there is no mention of her in the newspapers that report the trial. And yet she is the centre of the story.

Maugham concludes his story with the ironic line: And thus ended the comic and celebrated friendship of the four fat Dutchmen.  But it is not a comic story, and what happens to this girl, so lightly sketched, is what remains memorable.

Riwoe’s cultural background is Chinese-Indonesian on her father’s side, and the plot outline of The Fish Girl is reminiscent of The Girl from the Coast by Indonesia’s legendary author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (see my review).  Both stories feature a girl who has no choice, no agency, no independence and no conceivable escape from her fate.  In both stories —with parental acquiescence—an innocent pubescent girl is taken from her village to serve in the house of a Dutch colonist, and in due course is expected to provide sexual services.  Toer’s semi-fictional story of his grandmother’s own experience is an indictment of the way women were exploited in Javanese feudal society, and how that continued in much the same way under Dutch colonialism.  Riwoe allows her character a brief moment of happiness which turns out to be a delusion, and is the trigger for her to be offloaded to the Captain, and all that follows from that…

There’s a very interesting article at Made in China about W. Somerset Maugham and the way his representation of ‘the East’ changed over time.

Author: Mirandi Riwoe
Title: The Fish Girl
Cover art by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Zoom, 2017
ISBN: 9781925589061, pbk., 97 pages
Source: Bayside Library


Responses

  1. Glad you read this Lisa. It’s such a memorable work with so much depth to it despite its brevity. Like your link to Toer.

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    • If you get the chance, do follow that link to Experiences of the Soul, it’s very interesting about Maugham.

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  2. Yay, glad that you got the chance to read it now!

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    • You know, I really think it was because of the cover that I thought I had it on my shelves. All these Seizure winners have cover art by the same artist, and although they’re different when you look at them closely, at first glance they do look a bit the same. So I would see the reviews, think, ‘oh yes, I’ve got that, ‘I’ll come back and read the review when I’ve read it’, and so I never bought it!

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  3. […] Stories: The Legacy of Forging New Lives’ chaired by Roanna Gonsalves. Having finally read The Fish Girl, I was delighted to see and hear Mirandi Riwoe talk about that and her other book Stone Sky Gold […]

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  4. I haven’t read this but I did like Mirandi’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, so I have marked this one as an (eventual) read.

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    • She was lovely at the HNSA conference. A very thoughtful writer…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds so intriguing! What would we do, without our bookish friends to point us to the good’uns.

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    • *furrowed brow*
      I can just vaguely remember what I used to do… bumble around in bookshops and libraries relying too much on cover art!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe won a novella prize, and is in the tradition of Wide Sargasso Sea (another solid #NovNov pick), in that it takes a side character from a classic novel and gives her new life. Reviewed by ANZ Litlovers. […]

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  7. […] is the author of The Fish Girl, which won the Seizure Prize, and, since the publication of this novella in the Griffith Review, […]

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