In her strange — and strangely moving — first novel, poet Vi Khi Nao paints a portrait of discombobulated grief. Catholic and Ethos Romulus have lost their twin children in a freak seaside accident. Ethos might have been trying to drown himself in the middle of a picnic (it’s never made clear) and Catholic dives in after him. Their neighbors, Callisto and Lidia, are left in charge of the 3-year-old twins, but they go in after Catholic. That brief abandonment — and its ethical ramifications — haunt the entire book. But the episode isn’t made explicit until halfway through the novel. Does that spoil it? Not quite. Within the first few pages, we know something is aslant.
When Ethos learns of Catholic’s affair with Callisto, he puts flowers in his underwear. Later, when he and Catholic are in bed, they “take turns sharing the light.” A former elementary school principal, Ethos navigates his sadness in a detached tone full of non sequiturs. He roams the beach, carries a haversack “only to be in exile” and stands in the light of the open refrigerator. Eventually, he starts constructing a gigantic aquarium for Pistachio and Dogfish, an angelfish and an oriental sweetlips he acquires from the fish specialist Lorenzo Mancha. Meanwhile, Catholic disassembles the sewing machine and moves it to the balcony.
The book is split into six sections, each denoting a shift in perspective. Ethos narrates the beginning; Catholic narrates the end; the neighbors and Ethos’ mother narrate the middle sections. As in Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” this structure allows for different views on the same events, but Nao’s book feels more organic and textured, less convenient and, like grief itself, vulnerable to downshifts and undercurrents.
Water plays a huge role in the book. The couple frequently take trips to the sea, which is comforting and damning as they struggle to keep the fish alive. Catholic deploys some moving soliloquies toward the end of the novel. “Our grief is an exiled body,” she says. And indeed, the book yearns to describe in fractured language the out-of-body sorrows of grief and the ever-tempting allure of death.
“When I could fumble through her body in search of lost keys, love seemed real. There is nothing here anymore. I am giving my wife time to process bliss.” Words like that, “bliss,” consistently turn up as the couple orbit around each other. Nao’s language is replete with these odd surprises, words that seem accidental and loaded. What are we to make of this?
Or how about the weighty names — Catholic, Ethos, Callisto, Romulus — and the barrage of myths and symbols? The only clear answer: Vi Khi Nao seems the elusive love child of Anne Carson and Samuel Beckett, a preposterous connection that, somehow, in the end, makes a lot of sense.
Josh Cook is a fiction writer and editor. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, and the Millions, among others.
Fish in Exile
By: Vi Khi Nao.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 194 pages, $16.95.