A toxic tsunami of the world’s waste decimates a small Taiwanese town. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, Alice Shih, a literary professor contemplating suicide, discovers Atile’i, an injured South Pacific islander, washed up amongst the refuse.
With chapters told from multiple perspectives, we learn Alice is struggling with the mysterious death of her husband and disappearance of her young son Toto on a mountaineering trip. Meanwhile, Atile’i is from an isolated tribe that banished him for being born a second son.
While Alice’s tragic loss sits at the heart of the story, Atile’i’s narrative is much more enthralling. The author excels at creating the island of Wayo Wayo, inventing a language and customs for its primitive people, even an origin myth for their worship of the sea god Kabang. But magical goings on aren’t limited to this distant land. Alice’s aborigine neigbours, Dahu and Hafay, both recall meeting a mystical spirit with millions of eyes at pivotal moments of their childhood, the titular Man with the Compound Eyes.
Unfortunately, a weak third act undermines the immersive read. Through bonding with Atile’i, Alice develops a renewed vitality and the pair set off into the mountains to search for Toto. But not before she rekindles her love of writing and starts work on a new novel. This is where things get confusing.
The few lines we get to read of Alice’s story are identical to the opening of a later chapter and when she names her book ‘The Man With the Compound Eyes,’ we suddenly find ourselves lost in a story-within-a-story, wondering which is the ‘true’ narrative. While this approach has its merits, the key revelations about Toto’s fate are bound up in this literary turducken, so the ending feels frustratingly unresolved.
On the face of it, Wu Ming-Yi’s novel is a heavy-handed metaphor for humanity’s environmental impact. However, beautiful writing and the survivors’ relationships make for a more nuanced read, even if it disappears into philosophical metaphysics towards the end.