by Merlinda Bobis
In Fish–Hair Woman, Philippine Australian writer, Merlinda Bobis weaves a passionate story of love and loss, heroism and suffering and the atrocities of war. It is 1987 and the village of Iraya is militarised as the Philippine government cracks down on insurgents. As I read this thrilling new novel I am wondering just how much of this narrative is fact? I learn that the rebels are the New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines which began its guerrilla campaign against the government in 1969.
As the author unsettles her readers with the fundamentals of war; capture, torture, murder and rape, she also spins the mystical and strange story of Estrella, the Fish-Hair Woman who with her twelve metres of thick, black hair scoops up the bodies from the river floor.
The corpses are villagers; fathers and husbands, lovers and strangers. There’s the unknown guerrilla – her pelvis has been clearly beaten and her breasts have been slashed – her nipples are missing. They are all victims of the military, tossed in the river left to be gathered and wrapped in the lengthy tresses of the Fish-Hair Woman.
It’s an epic tale of peasants struggling for their land and raging against U.S imperialism. It’s also about family and community, but most of all its about heartbreak. The magical Fish-Hair Woman is the child of an encounter between a young girl and one of the most powerful men in the country. The 15- year old girl dies giving birth, leaving Estrella in the care of the devastated but loving Mamay Dulce. Dulce is the mother of the adventurous, brave and rebellious Pilar who falls in love with Kumander Benito and the Communist cause vowing to rise above the oppressive regimes, and all those who destroy the lives and dreams of the once passionate farmers forced to become tenants on their own land.
This country with its death squads, torture and loss, attracts an Australian journalist who becomes involved in this haunting tale of war and love. Years later, his troubled son hears of the mysterious Fish-Hair Woman, and uncovers the unpalatable truth of his father’s disappearance.
Fish-Hair Woman is about passion, loss, and tortured souls blended with the elements of intrigue and mystery. It’s also a novel of war and human suffering, a timely reminder to this reader.
I could hardly put it down.
Fish-Hair Woman is published by Spinifex Press
Hear Merlinda Bobis reading from her novel and discussing it with Helen Lobato