Charline Poirier reviews Graeme Hall’s ‘The Goddess of Macau’

‘The Goddess of Macau’ Graeme Hall
Fly on the Wall Press
ISBN: 978-1-913211-25-7


The goddess of Macau is Mazu, the Chinese deity of seafarers. An inscription dating from AD 1150 reads: ‘she could foretell a man’s good and ill luck’. In Macau, she oversees all facets of life and death.

In this collection, Graeme Hall’s short stories are inspired by myths about Mazu. They take place in Macau, a Portuguese colony poised between its Asian origins and its European influences and shaped by the ups and downs of fortune. This mix of cultures and destinies suffuses these typically dark and foreboding tales that speak of men and women whose lives are coming to an end. If the characters are sometimes ghosts, clairvoyants, visions, they exist in modern Macau as wives, neighbours, shopkeepers, local prostitutes.

Hall’s myths are cast in cultural themes: arranged marriage, family/clan loyalty, modern threats to traditions, afterlife. Yet, their most salient theme is time, which swells and swirls in the current moment past events and the people connected with them, like a large blanket drawn around a frail shivering present. Life is linear but consciousness jumps back and forth between present and past, especially when what is happening is in need of understanding. A cup of tea is not just a hot drink, it is knowledge, ritual, memory; it embodies love, blood, lineage, change.

‘A Short History of Chinese Tea’ is my favourite story. In it, multiple layers of simple but robust symbolism are in play. The original myth describes Mazu’s decision to die rather than accept an arranged marriage. Here, Lei-Wai, the arranged bride, manages to survive a quite terrible husband. Along the way, a close association between the taste of tea and moments of key transformations in Lei-Wai’s life surfaces: jasmine tea when she is first engaged, oolong tea when she is injured, and pu’er tea as she matures.

‘The tea is dark and earthy.  There is a complexity in the taste that I would never have enjoyed when I was young.’

But, basically, Lei-Wai’s story is a microcosm of a larger custom by women to use tea for comfort, medicine, and strength in a daily ritual that honours one’s ancestors.

‘It was my aunt who taught me how to judge the temperature of boiling water from the size of the bubbles. Shrimp eyes the coolest, and then crab eyes, fish eyes, rope of pearls and raging torrent.’

Lei-Wai is a symbol of the precarious balance between past and present and shows how time and practices chisel personal history.

As European and Asian ways collide, so do the minds and beliefs of Macau’s inhabitants. In the ‘Short History of Chinese Tea’ Lei-Wai drinks tea, her evil husband drinks cheap whisky.  In ‘The Price of Medicine’, magical thinking conflicts with modern science. Young Mei Wa who has reluctantly turned to prostitution to get money to pay for her mother’s urgent medical treatments tries to convince her father to take her mother to a doctor. He does not believe in Western medicine, however, and cares for her with traditional remedies. The tension between generations over cultural changes is laid bare when Mei Wa says to her father:

‘What fucking good are a handful of dried roots going to do when the cancer is eating her body?’

Hall doesn’t merely retell the myths, he plays with their elements. For example, a myth tells how Mazu is forced to abandon her sailor brother and let him perish, though she is able to save his three companions. Under Hall’s pen in ‘And All Will Be Well’, the same four sailors are stranded, this time in modern Chinese waters:

‘It is a calm night, an unremarkable October evening with the heat of the day just passed dissipated by a gentle breeze off the Pearl River. A few light clouds are illuminated by the half-moon, and the lights of the city and the Guia lighthouse are still clearly visible to port. They’ve been this way before many times, everybody has, but to Ling-wah, tonight feels different. He’s never before been conscious of the moment that they cross into Chinese waters,… they all fall quiet as they continue north.’

‘None of the crew even notice the approaching patrol boat, so focused are they on the broken engine and the nearby rocks, until, that is, the first bullets ram into the side of the boat, tearing holes in the already fragile gunwales.’

The goddess, floating on the water in a red dress, shows herself to young Ling-wah, as she has done many times before. Rather than being abandoned and dying, the boy cannot resist her. He steps off the boat into the water and goes to her – while the three others are saved, just as in the original folklore.

Showing a fine mastery of storytelling techniques, Hall heightens the verisimilitude of his characters and the vividness of their situations in two main ways. First, he moves characters across stories and, by so doing, establishes both continuity and a dynamic comingling of their individual lives. Lei-Wai who is the main character in ‘A Short History of Chinese Tea’ appears in ‘A Photograph Creased’ after she has become the owner of a tea shop; her young maid reappears as an older woman in ‘The Jade Monkey Laughs’ and divulges secrets untold earlier; Mei Wa is present both in her own story and in her father’s. Second, by bookending the collection with a common location – Lei-Wai’s tea house and Wei Chan’s antique store both located on la Rua de Santo Antonio – the author goes beyond the individual characters and suggests the life of a community.

Through its combination of a strong sense of place and its intimate point of view, ‘The Goddess of Macau’ exemplifies love, regret, hope, and change. The collection is an engaging and enjoyable read. When one of its stories, ‘And All Will Be Well’, won the 2018 Ilkley Short Story Competition, a judge declared it ‘[a]n expert masterclass in tension and spooks.’