'The Man With the Compound Eyes': Taiwanese author never lets the reader out of his sight

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Have you ever read a story that lingered for days — almost like a hyper-real dream slipping into your day hours after awakening? A story that continued to reveal its truths long after you’d finished reading it? That is the lyrical, haunting beauty of “The Man With the Compound Eyes” by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi.

Set in the exotic locales of semi-real, semi-magical Taiwan and the imagined island of Wayo Wayo, the novel begins with the tales of Alice, a troubled college professor and writer who has lost her husband and son, and Atile’i, a 15-year-old Wayo Wayoan set adrift in the Pacific Ocean as a sacrifice to the Sea God.

By Wu Ming-Yi
Pantheon ($25.95).

Masterfully alternating their stories and using the timeless language of fable for Atile’i and tighter narrative language for Alice, their worlds literally collide when the trash vortex island on which Atile’i has been living crashes into the Taiwanese coast where Alice’s Sea House is slowly being swallowed by the ocean.

Alice and Atile’i are not alone in this somewhat mythical setting, where Mr. Wu knits their stories together into a modern-day environmental fable. Slowly, Mr. Wu weaves in the perspectives of others on the island, the aboriginals Hafay and Dahu as well as the European scientists Detlef and Sara. Even the mysterious, magical man with the compound eyes.

Seeing the world through their eyes — eyes, indeed, are a recurring theme in the novel — the reader begins to understand that no one person and no one element of nature is an island; we are all part of an interconnected whole, in ways unimaginable.

But the twist that comes unforeseen near the novel’s end makes the reader question all that he or she has read in the pages before — and transforms the book into something entirely new. The book becomes much more than a universal, yet unique, tale of love and loss — both human and environmental.

“The Man With the Compound Eyes” becomes a story about stories themselves: stories as memory, stories as entertainment, stories as their own, very alive, organisms. The reader learns that, in some ways, whether stories are real or not is unimportant, as “life [is] a kind of resonance between story and song.”

Maybe that’s why “The Man With the Compound Eyes” defies categorization. A heady mix of science fiction, fantasy, environmental fable and magical realism, the author had to create a genre entirely new for this singular, captivating book. Because only upon finishing its final pages does the reader realize that the novel has become “like a forest in a novel that has grown into a real wood.”

Native Pittsburgher Heather Terrell, a former commercial lawyer in New York City, is the author of three historical novels — “The Chrysalis,” “The Map Thief” and “Brigid of Kildare” — as well as the young adult series “Fallen Angel” and “Relic,” the first in the young adult series “The Books of Eva.”

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