The Fiction Fox
Review: Catfish Rolling - Clara Kumagai
Genre: Magical Realism, Science fiction, Grief
Published: Zephyr, March 2023
My Rating: 5/5 stars, potential new favourite
"In the zone, things are preserves. In the slow places, decay can be delayed. Night comes later. Back in normal time, everything readjusts to the correct now. Her smell had disappeared. All I had was the memory." The honour of my first 5-star of the new year goes to Clara Kumagai’s phenomenal debut, that blends magical realism and sci-fi elements into a haunting tale of grief, family, time and the earthquake that shook a nation. Synopsis: Sora grew up with the legend of the giant catfish that lives under the islands of Japan; a creature of magic and myth responsible for earthquakes and tsunami’s by flicks of its tail. When Sora was eleven, the catfish rolled with an earthquake so powerful it shook time itself. Since then, the hardest-hit areas have fractured into zones, each flowing at a different pace of time. Due to the devastation, as well as the time-anomalies, these zones are off-limits to anyone but a restricted few governmental scientists. Both Sora and her father have been obsessively exploring the zones in secret, each with motives of their own. Her father seeks a scientific answer to the incomprehensible. Sora seeks her mother, who went missing during the Shake, hoping to find her trapped in a different time-zone somewhere. But dwelling in the time-zones isn’t without danger, and when Sora’s dad travels too far, Sora must venture into uncharted territory to bring him back to now. Review: Catfish Rolling is very close to my perfect book. It checks so many of my boxes; an emotionally layered, slowly unfurling story centring grief, change and the progression of time. Elements of folklore, philosophy and science. Generational gaps, family dynamics and a young-adult protagonist navigating desolate and haunted landscapes, mindscapes and combinations of those two. Kumagai juggles this ambitious cocktail of elements with remarkable ease and success. Personally, it was the depiction of grief, and the intersection of grief and time, that resonated with me the most. The way the zones warp time is very similar to the effects that grief can have on our perception- and memory of time. Slowing it down, speeding it up, making entire chunks of it go missing, or trapping characters to get lost in times gone by. On a smaller scale, Sora and her dad lose each other and themselves within them. On a larger scale, we also see the rippling effects the earthquake has had in shaping Japan and its culture as a whole. Some zones seem stuck in time, held back by devastation and holding on to traditions to cope. Other large urban zones shifting into high-gear, speeding away from the past at dazzling speed. Kumagai nails the narrative on each of these levels in a way that only an incredibly skilful author can. Again; my mind is blown that this is a debut! On an “objective reviewers basis”, I highly recommend this book. It’s a wonderfully written, thought provoking piece of speculative magical realism, that combines a post-apocalyptic-exploration mystery with an emotional character journey. You have to be okay with a slower pacing and not expect a flashy, plot heavy sci-fi novel, but if you surrender yourself the currents of this story, you’re in for an absolute treat. On a personal basis, I’m deeply thankful to have encountered this novel. Wandering the desolate landscapes of post-quake-Japan, and experiencing the feelings of curiosity, displacement, liminality and deep longing for a place you can’t return to, touched my heart in a way that few grief-stories have lately. This is going on the favourite-grief-fiction shelf for sure. Many thanks to Zephyr Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. Readalikes: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (blending Asian mythology and coming of age with a grief-narrative), Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer (different genre, but similar in regards to exploring liminal spaces and trauma)
You can find this book here on Goodreads.