While there are plenty of novels that tells the story of people’s lives during wars and revolutions, Arlene J. Chai’s Eating Fire and Drinking Water, however, tells the story of how characters lived at a time when a revolution is yet to begin.
The story is set in the “city of lies” where the Palace that houses El Presidente and Madam stands by the River. It is the same rive where the body of a student activist leader was dumped. With those details, the novel obviously pertains to Manila during the Marcos’ regime, though the backdrop was never directly said throughout the novel.
“'We can fight fire with water provided we can get it there soon enough. But often we act when it's too late. The result is splattered in the pages of our history: bloodbaths, uprisings, revolutions, you name it. And on it goes. We learn so slowly. After so many centuries, we're still a people who eat fire and drink water.'”
As Clara’s personal history unfolds, she learns that she has a “mother whose name is Anger, and father whose name is Pride” and that there was an “invisible self-appointed guardian” named Charlie who watched her grow from a distance. How she got involved with the student activists is another work of fate.
The novel is hinged on the idea of destiny as Clara narrates the story as if the characters are only pieces being moved by a “bigger hand”. One of these lines went, “And so, with each player in place, this tale of mine began”. Because of this way of narrating, some of the subplots are predictable. Suspense is not the strength of this novel but it allows the reader to focus more on the flawed traits of characters, which successfully painted a picture of a corrupted and tensed society.
A singing river, a Cathedral that disappears, a legend about a stone, a grand wedding and ambitious marriages, and stigmata were told in the story to further emphasize the interweaving of religious and superstitious beliefs with the political and economic struggles of that society.Some characters, like the brutality of Col. Aure who believes that killing is an art; the deceitful El Presidente; and the difficult life of lowly Rogelio Campos; can leave lasting imprints in the mind of readers.