On Chi Vu’s Anguli Ma

Anguli Ma is a murderer. In the versions of the myth that I found online, his name is Angulimala, named as such for the garland of fingers, lopped from the hands of his victims, that he wears around his neck. The wicked man is one finger away from completing his finger-necklace when Buddha convinces him to change his ways, thus reversing his fate.

In Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale, Chi Vu brings Anguli Ma to the Australian suburbs. The story’s central character is Dao, a sweatshop worker and landlord who is subletting the house she rents to fellow Vietnamese immigrants, Sinh and Bac. One day, Anguli Ma knocks on Dao’s door asking to rent a room. She leases the moulding garage to him, and her life is slowly turned to ruins.

Early on, Anguli Ma, written in the tradition of Anne Carson’s retelling of Ancient Greek tragedies and Circe by Nicelle Davis, brims with promise. There is humour and playfulness here – setting a Gothic story in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, for instance – as well as the kind of writing you feel in your bones:

The dog begins to shake uncontrollably, its hair stands up along the ridge of its back. The brown man looks into the eyes of the dog; the dog sees the man and knows itself to be animal, stuck in its animal form. It regrets its imminent pain and death. It is able to regret because it has known joy, the joy of running freely in the wind.

But it soon becomes clear that this is a story that is attempting to be many things: a tale of horror in the Gothic tradition, a story of the hardships faced by immigrants in a new land and a retelling of the myth of Anguli Ma. At the same time, it tells split narratives from multiple view points. In trying to be so many things in the space of 100 pages, it fails in completely being any of them.

Vu’s retelling of only a part of the Anguli Ma myth is comparable to David Malouf’s retelling of only a section of The Iliad in Ransom. But where Malouf enlivens his source material, Vu fragments hers. Dao, Sinh and Bac struggle to come to terms with their place in their adopted country, questioning why they left at all. “None of us knew if we were going to meet with God or the devil out there,” Bac says about her boat trip to Australia. It’s here, with these three Vietnamese women living under a single roof in a new country, that the story’s true richness lies. But the dramatic tension surrounding them is overtaken by the drama created by Anguli Ma, and eroded. Extending the narrative, giving it room to grow beyond the myth – the crux of which, the notion that one’s karma is not fixed, is lost anyway – of Anguli Ma but keeping the surreal elements, would have made for a more focused story and a more complete reading experience.

Despite the above, Anguli Ma as a dog-murdering abattoir worker and the lively Dao as the protagonist of a suburban Gothic tale makes this worth having a look. This is where the novella succeeds, as a hugely unique Australian story.