Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen: A Manifesto in 41 Tales by Marilyn Chin

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Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen: A Manifesto in 41 Tales by Marilyn Chin

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: An immigrant coming of age tale of twins, Moonie and Mei Ling, in California under the beady eye (and cleaver) of their domineering grandmother, this tale is told in a non-linear variety of short parables and stories. It's graphic, crude and rude in many places but is informed by traditional Chinese, Taoist, Zen and Buddhist texts with a bit of kung-fu and manga for good measure.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241144619

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Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (oh, how I love that title!) will almost certainly not be to everyone's taste, but I confess that I loved its originality, boldness, sassy style and the humour of it.

If this book were a CD, it would almost certainly carry one of those 'parental advisory' stickers. Make no mistake, this is not for the overly sensitive reader. It's rude, nay even crude, in many places and that alone will probably put some people off. While I'm at it, let's get the other potential frustrations out of the way. It's a non-linear story; in fact it's more of a series of short (sometimes very short) stories and parables all about the same people that add up to a whole picture of an immigrant coming of age tale - but more about that in a moment. Finally, it has a number of areas of what might be termed either magical realism or perhaps more accurately surreal moments (talking animals included). If any of these put you off, then you will almost certainly not enjoy this strange little book. It's not a book you are likely to feel ambivalent about - it's a 'love it' or 'hate it' kind of book. A 'Marmite book', if you like.

Marilyn Chin was born in Hong Kong but raised in the US where she is now a university lecturer and published poet of some renown. This is her first work of fiction. I was going to say 'her first novel', but it isn't so much a novel as a collection of short pieces of writing, many of which have been published in a variety of journals and magazines in the US.

The fantastic characters in this story include Grandmother Wong - the mad, matriarch of the Wong family who frequently wields her meat cleaver and has a tongue sharper than a serpent's tooth but who deep down has a warm heart, and who is frankly on a hiding to nothing raising the twins, who are the stars of this book, in California while trying to maintain some of the values of the old country. The twins' parents are too busy working in the family restaurant, the Double Happiness, to have much to do with the girls.

Which brings me to the twins: Moonie and Mei Ling. They have very different characters - Moonie is tom-boyish and prone to attacking people kung-fu style, while girly-girl Mei Ling is, well, there's no nice way of saying this, a bit on the promiscuous side. That's far more polite than how Moonie would describe her, and undoubtedly more than she deserves. We get some very graphic descriptions of the antics of both girls - and believe me, these two Wongs do not make a right. After reading this book, I can assure you, you will never look at tofu in the same light again.

The book is at times angry, but mostly just very funny (in a fairly crude way) and focusses on issues of identity, culture, traditional values and immigrant issues as well as being a coming of age story as the twins emerge from the family unit into university and return to wreak havoc in California, driving the family restaurant delivery van in the holidays and getting up to no good. As Cyndi Lauper sang girls just want to have fun. Towards the end of the book we get to find out how their lives turned out, particularly that of Mei Ling.

What prevents this from being just a light, shock value book is that Marilyn Chin's writing is informed by Chinese, Taoist, Zen and Buddhist as well as kung-fu and manga. She parodies Buddhist and Zen tales and koans - the traditional question and answer technique designed to be nonsensical, circuitous, often shocking and humorous to force the student to relinquish conventional thinking and thereby achieve instant enlightenment as Chin explains in her Postscript.

Chin uses a variety of styles and voices - some work better than others - but it is the combined effect that is so much fun. There's one small chapter that is a dialogue between Grandma Wong and a Mrs Jones that had me laughing out loud throughout concluding in a priceless variation on the American saying that it's not the heat that gets to you, but the humidity. It's a short book and quick read but I would happily have read far more about these wild twins and their wonderfully mad grandmother.

And rather appropriately for a book set around the family Chinese restaurant - an hour after finishing the book, I wanted to read it all over again!

Many thanks to the nice people at Penguin for inviting The Bookbag to review this beguiling book.

Another Asian/American-authored book that I would very strongly recommend is the lovely Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan, while if you want more tales of twins, then you get two sets for the price of one in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Both would be high on my list of favourite books from 2009.

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