Dorothy Tse’s “Snow and Shadow”

Reviewed by Camila Santos

Image of Dorothy Tse’s “Snow and Shadow”

Dorothy Tse’s third book, Snow and Shadow, is a collection of surreal stories set in a fantastical version of Hong Kong. According to Tse, Western readers don’t need extensive knowledge about her native city in order to appreciate her writing. “A person’s moods or dreams,” Tse explains in an interview, “may have just as much, if not more, influence on how someone may read my work.” It’s fitting that Tse mentions dreams, since her narrative style is trancelike. This is a book that is hard to put down, but that also requires readers to keep an open mind. Nicky Harman, the translator of Snow and Shadow and the first to translate Tse into English, explains in her introduction, “not only do weird things happen, but they are juxtaposed in ways that confound all logical explanations. The results are alternately beguiling and deeply disturbing.”

Snow and Shadow’s tales are filled with some uncomfortable topics: graphic violence, incest, amputations, abortion. The violence in the stories is reminiscent of pre-Disney, Grimm’s fairy tales, as characters’ limbs fall or are cut off with surprising regularity.

In “The Love Between Leaf and Knife,” a husband and wife compete to outdo each other’s love by engaging in a series of indulgent displays of affection: long-ignored house chores are accomplished, Valentine’s Day gifts are exchanged, and past sacrifices are displayed like trophies. When Leaf accepts her husband's unexpected request for a dance, the couple finally appears to have reached a truce, but they are so physically and emotionally out of sync, that Knife accidently steps on the hem of Leaf's skirt and she falls. Leaf expects Knife to help her up, but instead, he slaps himself on the cheek. When Leaf remains on the floor, and doesn't "jump to her feet and sympathetically rub his jaw for him," Knife is disappointed, but the couple's battle must continue and Leaf also hits herself on the cheek, turning their game increasingly violent. “‘If you hit yourself again,’” Knife warns his wife, “‘I’ll . . . I’ll knock my head against the wall.’ Then he walked to the wall and banged and banged until his forehead went red.”

Plots for the stories in Snow and Shadow are often downright peculiar, yet it's almost impossible not to yield to Tse's confident and exact prose. If the johns in “Blessed Bodies” run out of money, limbs are also acceptable currency among the prostitutes of Y-land, a country famous for its sex industry. The limbs are stored in warehouses and sold to the developed countries nearby. Readers will flinch at some of Tse’s descriptions, which shine in Harman’s meticulous translation. Here’s what happens when a bored, cruel princess from the collection’s title story decides to turn her idle hours more interesting:

Shadow wanted to learn this magic that Snow called “medicine.” So every day she ordered a serving woman’s arm to be cut off, after which she would clumsily sew a pig’s trotter onto the shoulder in its place. But her implants either dropped off as soon as the thread came loose, or caused gangrene. The women gave off a nauseating stink as they walked around the palace, and eventually had to be thrown out by the ministers.

Experimental fiction such as Tse’s is a driving force in Hong Kong’s literary scene. This former British Colony was only handed over to mainland China in 1997, after having been under British rule for 156 years. It is common for an average person in Hong Kong to navigate between languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, other Chinese dialects, and English. In a recent essay for the University of Iowa's International Writing Program Panel Series, Tse explains that in the 1950s, authors from mainland China would often mimic the languages “from the working class and the farmers as a way to reach the general public, yet Hong Kong’s literature has a tradition of resistance to the language of daily life. Its highly experimental language is a strategy to distinguish a literary work from an entertaining and commercial one.” Hong Kong writers not only aim to have their work escape the city’s commercial influences, but they also want to break free from traditional mainland culture. “In Hong Kong,” Tse continues, “writing is never an act that naturally brings one to the theme of nationality or cultural tradition.”

Western influences are keenly felt in this book. “Woman Fish,” which was first published in English in the Guardian, gives a nod to Kafka, as the protagonist’s wife morphs into a fish.

One morning, he realized that his wife’s sleek, pale head was completely without hair. Her mouth was huge, protruding like a ship cleaving the still waters of the sea. Her eyes had slipped to the sides of her face. Her breasts were two melting glaciers, slowly sinking into her body. When she walked naked towards him, all that was left of the woman were her smooth, muscular legs. Apart from that, she had transformed completely into a fish

Like the magical realists, Tse's writing interweaves the magical and the mundane. Universal laws, familiar logic, or a linear construct of time will not help readers interpret the events in Snow and Shadow. In the story “A Street in the Wind,” Mr. Lam, a widower living with his teen-age daughter and young son, is a fan of detective shows. As the story unfolds, he can no longer distinguish between the fiction of the TV program and his daily life, much like the nameless character in Julio Cortázar’s “Continuity of Parks” who confuses his reality with the world in a novel.

It is easy to let reality melt away with writing this elegant and sparse. Tse’s stories are carefully crafted. The language in Snow and Shadow is precise, matter-of-fact and carries no hint of sentimentality. In most stories, readers will find themselves in a world very similar to their own, until an unexpected plot twist transports them to fantastical settings and situations. There is Wood, the protagonist in “Head” who, while visiting his headless son at the hospital, suddenly decides to donate his own head so that his son won’t lead a headless life. The only reaction to Wood’s sacrifice which readers are allowed to witness, is from the point of view of the least invested character in the story, the son’s doctor: “The doctor raised his eyebrow slightly at Wood, but gave a tired smile. ‘The law states that you can agree to donate any organ to a close family member.’” There is also the young boy in “The Travelling Family” who marvels at a performing troupe whose magical tears turn into “bees and centipedes, flowers and grass.” The actors weep and the audience laughs as tears merge into objects, transforming “the street into a brilliantly colored and bustling scene.”

The situations that the characters in Snow and Shadow face do not make them any less human or complex. Whether by donating a head, chopping off an arm, leg, or losing an eye in exchange for sexual favors, turning into a fish, taking refuge in a block of ice or in a department store bed, Tse’s characters rarely grant readers access to their thoughts. Rather than lingering on backstory or motivation, Tse forces the reader to imagine her characters' inner world, driving the stories forward by exploring how they respond to each other. In the face of loss, pain, and helplessness, the characters in Snow and Shadow work with their memories in a kaleidoscopic fashion, constantly reshuffling events in their minds, often walking a fine line between reality and fantasy. “Like many people,” explains a character suffering from amnesia, “I can only remember a part of reality.” Reading Snow and Shadow is akin to being lost in a snowstorm: dizzying, terrifying, but nevertheless thrilling.