GABY RUSLI WRITES— Do you have what it takes to become the next big thing? If so, would you do anything to have your shot at stardom?
Translated into English, Siren Queen (2022) by Nghi Vo chronicles Luli Wei – a girl born and raised in a stereotypical traditional Chinese laundromat family in the pre-Code Hollywood era (an era marked by the arrival of motion pictures with audio). Wei discovers the allure of the silver screen after an unplanned visit to the theatre and has been dreaming of celebrity status ever since. However, stardom comes with its challenges — especially for a girl of Chinese descent in a world where big wig studios are run by literal reptilian monsters.
Nghi Vo is an award-winning Vietnamese American author. Much like her debut novel, The Chosen and the Beautiful (2021), a reinvention of The Great Gatsby (1925), Vo weaves her signature themes of magical realism into Siren Queen (2022), encapsulating modern challenges of race, gender, and xenophobia. Before that, Vo published The Empress of Salt and Fortune (2020), a novella that won the Hugo Award for Best Novella and the 2021 IAFA Crawford Award.
Vo’s decision to employ magical realism in Siren Queen seems unnecessary. Magical realism is meant to provide sharp criticism of reality using fantastical elements. The themes of magical realism in Siren Queen feel hardly original or hard-hitting. It is not the first time that exploitative Hollywood studio executives (such as the infamous Harvey Weinstein) have been depicted in the way of monsters. What’s different this time? In Vo’s attempt to create the next profound metaphorical comparison, she has shifted her readers’ focus away from a storyline with all the riveting elements of a great read as the novel becomes needlessly paranormal in its execution.
The novel’s language is reminiscent of the glamorous, age-old Mid-Atlantic accent, making the writing’s tone one-of-a-kind. For most English speakers who might not be used to such dialogue, understanding Vo’s writing becomes a challenge. On top of an already unconventional narrative and a literary tone that requires some getting used to, Vo introduces her characters in an unnecessarily slow-burning and thorough method that becomes more arduous than entertaining. Readers have to be able to form their own judgment on the book’s characters. This is a core part that makes or breaks one’s reading experience. Unfortunately, Vo does not seem to trust the readers enough to do so.
Siren Queen promised more than it ended up giving. If one can bear the more questionable parts of the book that ebbs and flows, Siren Queen could still be quite enjoyable to read. With a solid foundation of a storyline, there should not have been a need for Vo to have put the novel out of focus with one too many literary techniques. Siren Queen proves that Vo is an author of deep creativity and unconventional imagination. Vo just needs reminding that less is more.
Book Reviewer Gaby Rusli, LMU ‘20, is an International Relations graduate, an (ambitiously) self-proclaimed jack of all trades, and an unapologetic cat lady. She spends her time reading books written by Asian authors as it is a source of empowerment in her identity as a woman of color.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.