Tiffany Tsao, The Majesties, Atria Books, 2020. 272 pgs.
In her choice of title alone, Tiffany Tsao proves that she has a poet’s way with wordplay, and a penchant for layering meaning and image to powerful effect. The word “majesty” resonates throughout The Majesties, both literally and implicitly. It’s the name of the narrator’s debut signature line of high-end fashion accessories. It invokes the splendour of overwintering monarch butterflies, witnessed by the narrator on her pilgrimages to Monterey County. It’s the equivalent social rank of the narrator’s Chinese-Indonesian, multi-generational, multi-millionaire family.
The Majesties begins as Tsao means to go on: with two long, elegantly articulated sentences, finished off with a dry, darkly humorous quip like a chain of rapid-fire punches. The second paragraph launches a tour de force of storytelling savvy and psychological insight: the blinded, bedridden narrator imagines CCTV footage she’s never seen, with the kind of full-sensory detail that defies the capacities of standard surveillance cameras and their grainy, out-of-focus footage. Then just as the reader’s disbelief begins to waiver, Tsao reveals her comatose narrator’s unnerving degree of self-awareness:
That’s where my mind beats out the security cameras; such fine embroidery would never have registered on tape. Similarly, I bet the recording didn’t catch the resolution in her step, the hardness in her jaw, the murderous glint in her eye that also went unnoticed by all the family members and friends in attendance that night—and to my shame, me.
Tsao’s voice gripped me from the novel’s opening pages—the tone is arch, dry and darkly humorous. Yet almost immediately I found myself questioning the reliability of her narrator. How could this cool, measured cadence come from the sole survivor of a recent mass murder? The novel begins in the immediate aftermath of this climactic event, which is where it also ends. The 250 pages in between ricochet back and forth between the present, recent past and distant past, with the alacrity of the novel’s jet-setting protagonists. Yet this detail alone fails to cast The Majesties as an action-packed page-turner. I was never bored by the antics of Tsao’s spoiled, disaffected characters, but the author’s focus is firmly on the relationships between them—a brocade of shimmering emotions.
The narrator’s Majesty line of jewel-like accessories is made from thousands of live butterflies, reduced “to a state of almost complete dormancy” by a patented strain of genetically modified, parasitical fungi. The image is both ghastly and sublime, revelling in the paradox and fine sense of irony that pervade this novel. It also allows the author to flourish her fantasy and sci-fi chops—Tsao is the author of the Oddfits series. The runaway, haute couture success of Majesty is typical of the luxe, fairy-tale life lived by the narrator and her sister Estella. Not that there’s anything typical about Tsao’s approach to telling this tale. This isn’t the consumerist candy of The Devil Wears Prada. Here’s Tsao’s description of a room filled with state-of-the art designer furniture:
I had the sensation of passing through a white void populated by drifting blocks of solid colour, now a prismatic umbrella stand, now a shoe cupboard disguised as a concrete block, now a side table of barbed wire and an ottoman perched on scarlet high heels. They forced the mind to hallucinate in order to stay sane.
Neither is The Majesties an easy fit with the broad, slapstick comedy of Crazy Rich Asians. One notable distinction is Tsao’s choice to position her characters’ excesses against the backdrop of Indonesia’s financial crisis and the riots of May 1998. She points a finger at the corruption of the upper classes, and their easy escape to neighbouring Singapore or Malaysia. The ill-fated romance between a privileged young Chinese woman and an impoverished Javanese man lies at the heart of the novel’s denouement. Tsao avoids sentimentality with doses of black humour that leaves the reader chuckling with guilty complicity.
Tsao boasts an enviable command of rhythm and pace. She and her narrator remain one step ahead of the reader, mesmerised by the intricacy of their narrative web, only to be yanked through space and time at a moment’s notice on a gossamer thread. The next moment, momentum is suspended in yet another passage of brilliantly oblique description:
As if on cue, the clouds parted and the sun cast a spotlight on a high branch overhead. We saw them then: a cluster of brown triangles hanging heavy from the lobe of a eucalyptus tree, made conspicuous by the warm light that set the monarchs’ wings opening and shutting at intervals like a bunch of winking, disembodied eyes.
The Majesties does not fit easily into the peg holes of thriller, historical novel, chick lit, murder mystery, tragedy or satire. Yet it’s flavoured with style and substance from each of the above. If you’re looking for a novel that respects the limitations of genre, this book is not for you. Here is conscientious fiction with a powerful voice that asks more questions than it answers.
Phoebe Tsang is a Hong-Kong born Chinese, British and Canadian poet, author, librettist and playwright. Her libretti have been commissioned and premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Tapestry Opera, and Hamilton Philharmonic, among others. Honours include Nightwood Theatre’s playwriting unit (2019-20), Stratford Playwrights Retreat (2019), and Gros Morne Playwrights’ Residency (2018). The author of Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse (Tightrope Books, Toronto), she is a recording artist with Off record label (Belgium). Visit her website for more information.