The Magic Fish by Trung le Nguyen
RH Graphic, pb, £14.68
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Living in America, the son of Vietnamese parents, Tiến has found his place in school, speaking English and forming friendships. His parents encourage his integration and work hard to fit in themselves, even if his mother still doesn’t understand English. This means Tiến has a secret he can’t share with her because he doesn’t have the words to explain it; he is gay. Can Tiến find his own way to tell his mother without losing her love and acceptance?
Told through a combination of Tiến’s daily life and fairytales from his parents’ homeland, The Magic Fish explores what it means to be different from everyone else around them. The main characters of the fairy stories Tiến reads with his mother have a secret which keeps them separate from the other characters until that secret is revealed. Although Tiến struggles to find the words, when his mother is told, she adapts those stories to fit her son, showing him she still loves him in a language they alone have.
The fairytales are familiar for us, but subtly different, making them fresh, and demonstrating that the same stories are popular throughout the world. We have different versions of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, taken from other cultures. The Magic Fish demonstrates that we are united by stories regardless of where in the world we are born or what language we speak.
The artwork is gorgeous. Combining American Mid-West and Vietnamese influences, Trung le Nguyen creates a feast for the eyes. Clothing is used to depict when the main character is their true self. In the retelling of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid wears very different clothes under the sea to when she is on land. This creates a clear distinction between who she was pretending to be and who she really is.
A limited palette is used to powerful effect in The Magic Fish. Each strand of the story, the past, the present, and the fairy tale, has a different primary colour, with shading to make up the detail. This is very effective, especially where crucial elements of the story are picked out in a completely different colour, drawing out attention to it.
The Magic Fish is a loving, hopeful story, unique in its use of fairy story retellings, and brave in its depiction of isolation for members of the LGBTQ community who are also immigrants. To say this is a beautiful story, both physically and emotionally, doesn’t quite do it justice. Highly recommended.