the fish girl

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe - reflection by David Burton

In the countdown to the Stella Prize announcement, our editor-in-chief is making his way through the shortlist. You can check out his other reflections on 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  Mirandi Riwoe’s first novella The Fish Girl has already won the Seizure la Novella Prize. It’s now nestled in the Stella shortlist. As the Seizure la Novella Prize would suggest - the book is short, easily read in one or two gulps. (In fact, I’d recommend it to fully appreciate the rhythm.) Riwoe’s most impressive feat is the goal of many authors but achieved by few: The Fish Girl is simultaneously an intellectual backflip on twentieth century colonial dead-white-man fiction and a moving, compelling story in its own right.

A young Indonesian girl, Mina, is moved from her small fishing village to work in the house of a Dutch merchant. She leaves behind her mother, her crush, and her sisters, and encounters predictable hardships. In such a short volume, Riwoe illuminates fully realised characters. The intricate social politics of the Dutch merchant’s household pulse with acute realism. The Fish Girl’s final pages are its most surprising - not because they’re unpredictable, but because Riwoe’s commitment to that realism doesn’t abate for a moment. To fully appreciate those final pages, the book is best read across a single lazy evening.

The book was written as a direct response to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’, a quintessential work of colonialism. In Maugham’s story, a ‘Mallay trollop’ is barely a character. Her experiences, desires and hardships are erased by Maugham’s dead-white-male gaze. In Riwoe’s story, that character is Mia. So The Fish Girl is a postcolonial inversion.

Here’s the thing - I didn’t know any of that going in. The quote from ‘The Four Dutchmen’ at the start of each chapter was a nice nudge from the writer to suggest a deeper colonial context, but I didn’t do the specific dot to dot work. I didn’t read a blurb or anything about the book until I’d finished it. I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything.

Novella’s are deceptively hard. They’re longer, obviously, than a short story - so rarely can they hang on just one idea or an image. But they don’t have the breadth and full arc of a novel. It’s a coarse analogy, but The Fish Girl is excellent value for money and time. There’s a full cast of memorable characters, an epic journey, and haunting message, all in just a hundred pages. It feels as if the work could be three times the length. At the same time, it doesn’t feel as though you’re missing out on anything. In this, Riwoe has nailed the form where so many fail.

The Fish Girl is a great quick read from an exciting Australian voice.