Book Review: Of Metal and Wishes, by Sarah Fine

Wen lives out her life within the confines of an industrial slaughterhouse inside a huge complex that houses workers, processing facilities, and her father, the company doctor. When a group of workers are brought across the mountain to help increase production and one of them insults her, she asks the mysterious factory ghost for revenge — and finds out that the ghost is more real than she thought he was. Thus begins a strange, twisted, paranormal tale in Of Metal and Wishesin which the reader’s assumptions are constantly tweaked in a lyrical, complicated narrative that builds and stacks on itself until it builds to a striking finish.

The book is set in an alternate version of China, in which industrial culture has taken over. Massive factories produce the bulk of goods and services, with only the wealthy able to afford handmade goods. Most communities cluster around factory complexes, while the government goes to war with massive machines built in its industrial facilities. Wen’s life is one of blood, filth, constant noise, and loss — her mother has just died, which is what forced her to move from a cottage in the outer ‘ring’ to the factory itself.

Things aren’t all bad for Wen, though, as she works closely with her doctor father and embarks on medical training, pushing closer to her dream of being a physician herself. But they start to go sour when she catches the eye of an upper-level manager, who forces her father to allow her to be transferred to his office to work as a secretary. The boss is infamous for sexually harassing his secretaries — the last was turned out on her heels after he raped her, leaving her pregnant, homeless, and desperate. Wen’s life is turned even more upside-down when a group of Noor — strangers from across the mountains — are brought to the factory to churn out more meat than ever before.

A deep mythology surrounds the Noor, who are viewed as barbarians. They’re huge, hairy, and pale, and they live in the factory essentially as indentured servants, pushed back to the most dilapidated and unpleasant housing and given the worst treatment. When Wen passes through the company cafeteria one day and a Noor boy trips her, she turns to the mysterious ghost who allegedly haunts the factory to demand payback. She doesn’t believe in the ghost, despite the altar laid out for him in the shadows of the hallways, and she’s skeptical when she steps up and writes her wish down.

Yet, days later, her wish is granted, in a particularly horrific way, and it plunges her into a world of swirling superstition and cultural clashes. As she grows closer to the Noor, sympathising with the way they’re exploited and treated like garbage, she begins to respect them, and even to fall in love — but she also learns that the ghost is a real person, and he’s falling in love with her. Caught between the two, she struggles with avoiding the factory boss who wants to assault her, learning the truth about what it means to be ‘transferred’ from the factory, and growing into her own as a woman who’s expected to make decisions and strike out on her own.

One thing that fascinates me about Of Metal and Wishes, of course, is the subversion of reader assumptions. In this world, the Chinese community is the dominant culture, and whites are not. Books that flip racial stereotypes and challenge cultural norms always intrigue me, especially when they’re well-done, and this one is. It forces white readers to think carefully about social structures, institutional racism, and where they stand — is their cultural power derived from innate superiority, or racism? Are they the dominant social class because they happened to be born into the right place at the right time? These kinds of challenging questions push readers to think outside themselves when it comes to their views on race and culture.

I also love the strange beauty of the book. One doesn’t normally think of a slaughterhouse as being a place of beauty, but the book is filled with luminous imagery, intriguing places, and strange metal creations that play a key role in the narrative. The ghost’s own fascination with metal, engineering, and construction is a critical component of the story and Wen’s relationship to him, and his influence winds throughout the factory and the text.

The handling of the love triangle is also interesting, as it doesn’t take the form of a classic love triangle, where readers are forced to watch a character struggle between two love interests. From the start, Wen has very different relationships with the ghost and the Noor boy she falls in love with, and these underscore the fact that one love is doomed and unrequited, and the other is not. However, it is troubling that it’s the ghost — the disabled, isolated character — that she views as a friend and nothing more, while it’s the Noor character that she develops a deep bond with.

This is always an issue I struggle with in cases like these, because it’s textually appropriate, but has larger social implications. Both characters represent marginalised groups and both have faced similar social and cultural obstacles — the Noor boy because he’s a racial minority, and the ghost because after being disabled in a factory incident, he was viewed as useless trash. Yet, I dislike the idea that a disabled character is automatically not a love interest, that he’s sexually unappealing because of his disabilities, that he can’t be a legitimate partner. I don’t think this is what Fine meant to convey with the love triangle, but it’s a message that’s easy to take away from it, especially since this is how disabled people are usually depicted.

How do you balance the need to tell a story with the desire to make sure you don’t reinforce negative social attitudes and stereotypes? It’s not easy, and I don’t envy Fine. Overall, the book was superb, and I loved where she took it for readers in her exploration of race, culture, industrialism, and society.