Phoebe Tsang, Setting Fire to Water. Thistledown Press, 2022. 220 pgs.
Phoebe Tsang’s short story collection Setting Fire to Water is a delightful debut that transforms seemingly prosaic lives and events into exciting secrets encased in the writer’s poetic and musical language.
The seventeen stories are not unlike snippets of daydreams carefully extracted from wandering minds, while on a Monday commute or waiting for the microwave to cook dinner. One protagonist dreams about a fox crossing a road (“Hunger”); one ponders what lies at the end of a subway tunnel (“System Down”); another wonders who has moved into the flat next door (“Parlour”). As dreams often are, many of these stories are charmingly contradictory and one can never be quite sure where the journey is headed, but they are all linked by a quiet loneliness and sense of involuntary exclusion.
“She felt like a mermaid disguised as a girl, whose legs had turned back into fins and a tail as soon as they touched water.”—“Model Shown Is Actual Size”
Tsang’s stories are mostly set in a recognisable modern Canada, and many of her characters are often surprisingly mundane. The allure of the stories lies in the way that she is able to breathe life and light into these seemingly unremarkable people and uncover the silver lining in every dull struggle. The simplistic, almost anticlimactic, plots are a virtue rather than a fault and provide the perfect opportunity for Tsang to stretch out her poetic limbs. They allow the reader to appreciate Tsang’s rhythmic sentences and colourful imagery, whilst offering room for deeper discussions of more complex themes and issues.
Using light humour and lyrical language, Tsang explores otherness and alienation in a way that doesn’t lecture or patronise her readers. As a third culture kid herself, many of Tsang’s characters are products of a multicultural upbringing but their struggles with identity or otherness are not limited to a straightforward reconciliation with their race or culture. In a way, this also highlights the heterogeneity of the Asian Canadian population and offers a more dynamic interpretation of the group that differs from typical narratives which focus more on the ethnic and cultural aspects of alienation.
“Colour shifts, changes, fades, merges, blooms, and shimmers like a hologram. How can she put these colours into words on a page that simply say: I am?”—“Words and Colour”
Tsang writes with subtlety but also with precision so her ideologies are evident but unforced. The “moral” often comes at the very end of the narratives, even though one could argue that none of the stories have a true concrete ending. Nevertheless, the resolution of the stories somehow lingers, a melted sweet that stains one’s tongue, and tempts one to reread the prose so as to get the most of it.
In “Nights in Arcadia”, the protagonist carries two names that she loathes, one belonging to herself (Coyote is, arguably, a difficult name to love), another belonging to her ex-boyfriend Sam. The story is apparently obvious straight off the bat as the reader observes Coyote’s flirting with a series of men in a run-down bar in Arcadia. She eventually meets one who has the same name as her ex, and this is where the expected ending does not come. There is no happily-ever-after, nor a breakdown where everything burns to the ground, but rather, the plot slowly fades out when the new Sam leaves momentarily to open the door for another stranger. Coyote asks, “If he doesn’t come back soon, will she still know him?” and the narratives ends almost mid-sentence. The story leaves a strange aftertaste and upon reflection, the reader may find that Coyote had been asking many other similarly unanswered but quietly important questions throughout her short time in Arcadia. She asks questions about her name and appearance and the power they hold over her identity, about the use of memories in the present and future, about how one’s consciousness decides what is ignored and what is captured in any given moment—every thought and doubt a Gordian Knot that cannot be easily untangled by Coyote or even by the reader. These are problems that Tsang leaves for her readers, perhaps not to resolve but to simply behold.
Moments like these are scattered throughout Tsang’s collection and they cause one to wonder why stories that appear so simple and innocent could elicit so much emotion. The feelings can ultimately be credited to Tsang’s skill in hiding her voice within the seemingly straightforward plot.
The title story “Setting Fire to Water” closes the collection with a satisfying yet bittersweet sigh and definitely one of the highlights of the book. It is another more-than-meets-the-eye story about a young accountant who travels to India as he attempts to survive and resolve his quarter-life crisis. Here again Tsang’s messages remain out of focus and in the background, but always visible and available to those who seek further depth and meaning. As with her other stories, Tsang never judges nor condescends as her voice gently guides readers into her dream-like reality.
How to cite: Au, Aerith. “Dream-like Reality: Phoebe Tsang’s Setting Fire to Water.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 01 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/01/fire-to-water/
Aerith Au is a PhD student and aspiring writer living in Hong Kong. She writes about everything from books and games, to movies, music, politics and philosophy, aliens and zombies. Her short story “Yanghwa Bridge” received a Special Mention at the Nivalis Short Story Contest 2017 and her essay “My Mother’s Life” won the Honourable Mention in the 2017 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest. She received her BA in Philosophy from the University of Nottingham and her MLitt in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of St Andrews. She is currently trying to finish her first novel while fighting off her many hobbies/addictions such as crocheting, gaming and painting.