The Magic Fish
By Trung Le Nguyen
I knew this book had won awards going in, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Whatever awards this got, it most definitely deserved!
Going in, I knew that it was about a Vietnamese boy, Tíển, struggling to find the words to come out to his parents, while bonding with them over fairy tales. But it is so much more than that. It is a story about family and immigration and survival. It’s about acceptance and change and communication. (Also, we accept asshole behavior in fairy tales and stories, but as soon as that behavior appears in “real” life, it’s so much worse.)
The first fairy tale is a Cinderella variation, but it has more depth than the Disney story we all know. (There are elements that remind me of the movie Ever After, which is one of my favorites!) It’s the German version, “Tattercoats.” In most versions of Cinderella, it’s the step-mother who is cruel, but here it is her father. And there is a tale that is not told about how her father and mother came together. The Cinderella character is stronger here, and does not need someone to rescue her, although there are opportunities for things to go badly. There is also a point made that the prince and the “mysterious princess” actually talk and have conversations during the balls as opposed to silently dancing while staring into each other’s eyes. It’s also the sort of story that could have more to it afterward.
The next fairy tale is another version of Cinderella, but the Vietnamese tale “Tấm Cấm.” This has the stereotypical wicked stepmother, but a LOT more violence and death. I won’t go into too much detail, but there’s cannibalism.
The third fairy tale is a version of “The Little Mermaid,” which does bring back elements from the first story. The land portion of the tale takes place not once upon a time, but around the 1980s. Reading the author notes at the end did give some interesting details that I hadn’t noticed. The first fairy tale is being read by Tíển, who grew up in America with Disney, and so the dresses and sets are influenced by that. The second is told by his aunt to his mother, and so has some 1950’s Vietnamese influences. And the last his told by Tíển’s mother to him, and brings part of her story of coming to America and his beginning story together. The author also points out that “The Little Mermaid” is an immigration story, with the main character going someplace new, where she knows no one, and cannot communicate using her own language.
The colors used in the panels are simple and monochromatic, but they let you know which element of the story we’re in. The fairy tales are blue, flashbacks to Vietnam are yellow, and current time is red. The fairy tale sections are the only ones with accent colors – peaches and blood get their true colors amidst the blue.
(This fulfills the 2021 CBR 13 Bingo square of “Book Club,” as I used this as my Teen Graphic Novel Book Club pick for Summer Reading. No one showed up, but it still counts!)