Bestiary opens with a quest for lost gold. Agong, to whom the gold belongs, has no recollection of where he stashed the two bars. His family upturns the yard in pursuit of the misplaced treasure, first by digging holes, then with a metal detector. Agong’s two daughters run the machine over his sleeping body, thinking he might have ingested the gold and hidden it in his bowels, before they realize
There’s nothing inside him we can spend, not unless grief is a currency.
K-Ming Chang’s debut novel is structured around a set of myths, like this story of Agong’s lost gold, passed between Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. These stories tell their family history, allowing Daughter to come to grips with herself and the past traumas of her parents and grandparents who moved from Taiwan to America before she was born. There are hints of magical realism here—with an emphasis on the magical—as mystic events and spirits integrate seamlessly with Daughter’s reality. As the principal narrative voice comes from a child, this magic is taken at face-value, an unquestionable part of the real. In the novel’s main fable, a tiger spirit named Hu Gu Po eats children’s toes and longs to possess a human body. The spirit takes Daughter as its vessel, and she wakes up one day to find she has grown a tiger tail. The tail is arguably a metaphor for puberty, but Daughter remains oblivious to this, treating the new addition indiscriminately as a valid body part equal to a hand or a foot.
Interspersed among the stories is Daughter’s relationship with Ben, a girl from Ningxia whom she meets at school. Their relationship begins in bathroom stalls, where they hide, tell each other stories and compare their changing bodies, before moving to their respective backyards, filled with holes (the purpose of which they discuss at length). Their interactions fizz with the intensity of teenage desire, in all its urgent newness. It is Ben who helps Daughter accept her tail—initially she is frightened by it and considers cutting it off—but Ben persuades her otherwise:
Having a body is a liability… And I like your body.
Bestiary is in many ways all about bodies. This in part reflects the narrator’s passage into teenagehood, but it is also about coming to recognize the physical strength and weakness of others. Chang writes with real clarity about the pain bodies can inflict and endure—from Mother prising off Daughter’s nail in the back of a taxi
She gripped my pinky and yanked the nail clean off its bed of skin, so fast I didn’t bleed, the pain a bright bead, rolling back and forth on my tongue until I couldn’t taste anything else.
to her aunt’s stroke:
Then her legs let go of their bones. She fell forward, cracking her forehead on the counter as she came down. Blood sashing across her whole torso. I tried to shout, but my voice calcified in my mouth.
Though the novel is largely set in America, Taiwan looms large. As Agong loses his memory, he experiences hallucinations that relate details of Taiwan’s modern history. He relives his time in the Japanese army, fighting against phantom soldiers in the garden, and his fear of Taiwan’s Nationalist government following the 228 massacre in 1947 and the decades of purges that followed. Meanwhile, the sea goddess Mazu and European missionaries appear in stories of Mother’s eldest half-sister, Dayi.
There’s a literary buzz around Bestiary, and rightly so. The novel’s opening sequences in particular belie the fact that this is a first novel. Chang, who previously published as a poet, writes in a style that is lushly descriptive without being overbearing. She avoids the pitfalls that can trip up an otherwise lyrical novel, where the enticing depth of the first few pages come to feel something of a burden a couple of chapters in. Chang’s fellow poet Ocean Vuong immediately comes to mind: Vuong’s debut On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is similarly lyrical and shares a number of themes with Bestiary. But, Bestiary is, if anything, even more ambitious and experimental in structure: its chorus of chapters convey the awkwardness of transferring the art of oral storytelling onto the written page:
Parable of the Pirate, told by Ama when the narrator is suffering from fever — [To be read in Ama’s voice. Suggestions: Read this aloud underwater, or speak perpendicular to a strong wind, or swallow a fork before speaking. Bleed your voice of its language, then learn a sea’s accent.]
Throughout there is a sense of the deficiencies of language; its inflexibility and inability to capture the reality of the stories in its grasp. And it is here, in the limits of language, that Bestiary conveys its real power. As the family myths manifest in Daughter’s life, their significance is communicated to her silently. Chang shows how we are tied subconsciously to our family histories, and when words fail to express that connection, our bodies take the lead.
Aoife Cantrill is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. She is currently working on a history of translation in 20th century Taiwan.