Friday, 18 July 2008
Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
There is, stretching delicate as a bird's head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird's head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour...
With this opening, EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY swept me up into the muggy climate of early post-colonial Malaysia, the first stop on my journey around the world as part of the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. Samarasan skillfully weaves the personal life of the one Indian family with the public stories of the birth pangs of modern Malaysia to create a lush, multi-layered tapestry of stories.
Set mainly in 1980, but using flashbacks to dart throughout the proceeding decades, this novel follows the fortunes of the Rajasekharan family, of the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, along with their servants and neighbours. As the novel progresses, and secrets are revealted, relationships strain and cracks appear. There is 6 year old Aasha, heart sick for the love and attention of her older sister Uma and so lonely that she plays with ghosts. As Aasha tracks Uma's every move through the house and garden, the once charming and exuberant Uma has locked herself away, shutting down on her family as she plots her own escape by means of a college scholarship to the US. The mother, a woman who married above her class and suffers the consequences of her own emotionally bereft upbringing, is locked in a loveless marriage with the father, a successful and influential lawyer but a distant father and ineffectual patriarch. The aging grandmother turns her physical decrepitude to a sort of tactical advantage, using her ailments and physical frailty to control the dynamics of the household.The middle child, a boy named Suresh, uses humour to swim through the emotional currents around him.
Aasha, an unwilling pawn in the power play going on above her head, is a wonderful character. While she is too young to understand all of the struggles going on, she is sensitive and perceptive. Samarasan's descriptions of the six year old orbiting around her older sister had me laughing sometimes (it must be irritating for the teenage Uma!) and sighing at other times. The author really captures the way that children too young to understand what is really going on can blame themselves or make warped decisions about the truth. I also think the author perfectly captures the way people are products of their upbringing and past, especially the mother. She wriggles uncomfortably in her skin, despite having the nearly perfect veneer of the groomed and perfumed rich society wife. She in turn passes a hollow legacy to her children.
EVENING IS THE WHOLE DAY is a compelling read. The large cast of characters and mixture of public and private histories reminds me of a sweeping 19th epic, but even cameo or minor characters are rendered so humanely that none of the characters felt superfluous. The overall effect is that this novel is a page-turner, the sort of book I didn't want to end (I read those last 50 pages as slowly as I could!) and definitely my favourite contemporary novel of the year so far. What's even more impressive is that this is a debut!
With regards to the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, this novel captured the sense of place so well that I have a much better understanding of Malaysia now, especially the complexities of three races finding a place in society alongside each other. It is one of the best post-colonial novels I've ever read. If I were given to ratings, then this novel would be five stars for me.