At a pivotal moment in Fishing for Tigers, Cal turns on his older lover and her group of promiscuous expatriates living a life of affluent excess in the ancient city of Hanoi: ''You and your friends, you treat this place like it's a blank slate, and I hate it,'' he says.
''You haven't learnt the language, you don't have Vietnamese friends. You treat your neighbours like they're extras in the movie of your reinvention. You say you love it but you're not really in it.''
Where and what is home is a central theme of Emily Maguire's new novel, her first to be set outside the author's native Sydney.
Long occupied with human motivations and relationships, and conflicts around culture, security, love and family, Maguire also explores corollary themes of identity and belonging through a story of self-discovery and developing love between Cal and Mischa, a woman twice his age.
Californian Mischa Reese is damaged goods. At 35, she is adrift in Vietnam without roots and responsibility, having come to Hanoi only because the airfare was cheap; wanting to lose herself so thoroughly in its strangeness she can never find a way back.
Cal, a Vietnamese-Australian teenage son of an expat friend, is a child of both cultures but identifies with neither. The attraction between the two is at first sexual, but deepens into something more as Cal attempts to prod Mischa out of her emotional numbness.
''A lot of people don't naturally feel a sense of belonging to the place where they officially belong,'' Maguire says, ''and that operates on all kinds of levels from that very self-indulgent level of 'Where do I feel happiest?' right through to the situation of refugees who can't be where they feel at home.
''For many, many Vietnamese Australians, and Vietnamese around the world in the diaspora, Vietnam was a place to escape from. For Mischa it's a place to escape to.''
Fishing for Tigers came about as a result of an Asialink residency awarded in 2008 in which Maguire spent three months working part time for a Hanoi publishing house. The author abandoned her original book idea the moment she arrived. ''I just fell in love with Hanoi,'' she says. ''I've travelled a fair bit and I've never felt that about a place before. I've never felt so connected.
''I've been back for at least a month a year since then, and not just for the book, because I want to be there.
''I don't belong in any sense of the word, and I haven't sorted out an answer as to why I feel so happy there. Disconnection is part of it, and it's the guilty part - that you're happy somewhere where you don't have any ties.''
It's also the dilemma of the expatriate experience. Cal opens Mischa's eyes to the tramp of backpackers, their faces bright shades of pink, and she recognises herself as another ''damaged f--- up unable to thrive in her own land''. Far from courting caricature, Maguire says she had to ''dial back'' some of the worst traits of the Western expat for her book.
Maguire borrows from Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American the epigraph: ''Innocence is like a dumb leper who lost his bell wandering the world, meaning no harm.'' Lack of malice is no defence of disengagement, says Maguire, who has devoured most of Greene's works, The Quiet American - about detached Saigon war correspondent Thomas Fowler - many times.
Fitting in, however, is mere fakery. ''When I was working there at the publishing house, I made really good friends with the women that I worked with and they took me to be fitted for an ao doi [traditional dress]. It was a spectacle for the whole street because they'd never measured such sizes before. Whereas that experience here might make me really upset, to have my measurements called out because they are ridiculous, there is just no way I'm going to ever have the shape or the experiences or anything of a Vietnamese woman.''
In Vietnam, tigers are symbols of independence and rebellion, the very qualities Cal wishes for Mischa and which Maguire epitomises. A high school drop-out, Maguire won The Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Award in 2010. Her three previous novels, Taming the Beast, The Gospel According to Luke and Smoke in the Room share Maguire's sharp observations of the messy-sad beauty of the human experience and the conventions that shackle female sexuality.
''I've never felt this happy and calm about a book,'' Maguire says. ''I think part of it is experience. I feel I know more what I'm doing but it was also really enjoyable to write in a way the others haven't been. I had such a good time writing. There [were] still tough bits … but it was never painful. I didn't realise a book could be like that.''
Fishing for Tigers by Emily Maguire is published by Picador, $29.99.