A woman escorts her friends on a trip that traces the steps of Buddhism and art across borders. But with a few unusual twists and turns. The woman is a ghost. And the group of travelers 'disappear' somewhere along the path. A great story with wonderful themes: illusion, belief, faith, intent. Culture and religion make for some great fusion, with conflict between sexes and tribes stirred into the pot for good measure.
I liked the fact the narrator was a ghost. It was a unique device and point of view that allowed for the 3rd person omniscient with the 1st person.
I also enjoyed the commentary about different 'schools' of Buddhism:
... since ninety percent of the Burmese are Buddhist, I would say most live in a Land of Illusions. They are taught to shed their human desires like a snake in its mortal coil, and once free they can achieve nibbana, nothingness, the ultimate goal for those who follow the old Pali scriptures... Granted it is mostly monks who follow Theravada Buddhism in its strictest sense... Let me hasten to add that although I was raised a Buddhist during childhood, it was a Chinese kind of Buddhism, which is a bit of this, that, and the other - ancestor worship, a belief in ghosts, bad fate, all the frightful things, But it was not the Burmese version that desires nothing. With our kind of Buddhism we desired everything - riches, fame, good luck at gambling, a large number of sons, good dishes to eat with rare ingredients and subtle flavours, and first place in everything and not just honourable mention....All this talk of oblivion, of wanting nothing and becoming nobody, seems rather contradictory from a Buddhist sense. The Buddha did all this and he became so much a nobody that he became famous, the biggest nobody of them all. And he will never disappear, because fame has made him immortal. But I do admire him for his attitude and discipline. He was a good Indian son. (p 244-245)I wasn't too fond of how Tan handled the characters. There were many, and they were hard to differentiate. About 3/4 of the way through the book she is describing the travelers as a group and contrasting them with each other... this would have been useful closer to the front. If it was there, I missed it. It wasn't until close to the end that I realized a central character was black and that there were some Eurasians in the crowd. When I brought this up at the book club, I surprised a few people who had finished the book and still hadn't realize the fact. Given that part of what made this interesting was the different cultures, it would have played nicely with the story to honour the differences. A few more vivid physical descriptions along the way would give the characters more presence.
Oh yes, and in case you are wondering about the story behind the title:
A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes." (overleaf)A deceptively easy read.