Bibi Chen, wealthy socialite, proprietor of The Immortals - a chic San Francisco shop selling Oriental artefacts - and prodigious donor to causes artistic, has arranged to lead twelve of her friends on an expedition to China and Burma to explore Buddhist art. Unfortunately, two weeks before they're due to leave, she dies a bloody and mysterious death. As a tribute to Bibi (also they've paid and there's a problem with the insurance), her friends decide to make the trip. But, in choosing a replacement leader who, though sweetly well-meaning, is neurotic and ill-prepared and then - in the search for greater authenticity - tearing up Bibi's itinerary, they set the scene for disaster.
Prevented by her untimely death from leading the tour in person, Bibi is still able to join it in spirit to relate, explain and comment on everything that happens. Whilst the afterlife confers omniscience - terribly handy for a narrator, especially in a novel featuring so many characters - it deprives Bibi of most of her abilities to intervene when things go wrong: a fact of death she finds intensely frustrating. But she's a resourceful soul and eventually works out how to exert her influence from beyond the grave.
Amy Tan's fifth novel opens with "a note to the reader'" in which the author describes how, caught sans brolly in a Manhattan storm, she took shelter in the American Society for Psychical Research. There, amongst the transmissions from the other side, she "discovered" Bibi's posthumously-dictated tale. Granted permission by the transmitting medium, Tan fashioned this "found" story into Saving Fish from Drowning.
It's a cute opening device (one with a long pedigree), designed to tickle the reader's sense of the troubling and permeable boundaries between truth and fiction, between life and death and beginning, middle and end, and to alert us to the playful-yet-melodramatically-serious nature of the story to follow. Behind all the slapstick stuff - travelers falling for and out with each other; tummy-upsets cured by a hypochondriac's copious medical supplies; a rebellious tribe mistaking a teenage slacker who's mastered a few card tricks for their saviour; a newly-discovered genus of massively phallic aphrodisiac plant, and so on - lurk some sombre concerns. Saving Fish from Drowning is a deeply-felt critique of Burma's repressive Myanmar regime. It's a vehicle for disseminating information about its brutal treatment of dissenters and for asking questions about the motives, methods and behaviours of the media and a few human rights activists and about the pitfalls of trying to help others. What happens when your efforts make things worse instead of better?
Tan has set herself an ambitious task. Keeping a handle on all thirteen central protagonists plus a substantial supporting cast, each of whom comes complete with detailed backstory, would be challenge enough, even if the rather jolly plot didn't play out against a backdrop of "sacrilege, torture, and abuse". That's a lot - too much - to keep in mind whilst reading.
Having said that, Saving Fish from Drowning is engaging and enjoyable. Tan's warm-hearted humour and characteristically kooky characters serve to keep the reader hooked, while her clear-eyed questioning undercuts a tendency toward whimsical sentimentality. You want to find out whether the celebrity dog trainer Harry Bailley will ever get it together with the elegant Marlena Chu. You care about the fate of the persecuted villagers. And about what happens after the ending(s) - happy or otherwise - when life goes on... and so does death.
Lisa Gee's most recent book is 'Friends' (Bloomsbury)