Discussion location: The Coffee Room, Arcadian (that weirdly, does main meals and not just coffee)

Chosen by: Claire

Reason for choice: Studied at University in a Caribbean women’s writing module, stayed with her.

Review:

The first novel of film-maker and artist Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night is the story of Mala Ramchandin, an elderly lady who, suspected of insanity and murder, is taken to a nursing home as she is unfit to stand trial.  There, she is looked after by nurse Tyler who relays her story in an attempt to find Mala’s estranged sister Asha. The novel is set along two time narratives – the present day where Tyler becomes acquainted with Mala and encourages her to engage with him, and the past, where Tyler explains the history of Mala’s family and the events that led to her confinement in the nursing home.

Set in the fictional town of Lantanacamara, believed to be Mootoo’s childhood home of Trindad; the novel is highly descriptive and evocative, at times, so easy to visualise that it places the reader in the streets of the novel.  In particular, the depictions of the flowers which permeate the novel are almost redolent. However, the descriptions of some of the characters, for example Mala’s mother Sarah, are lacking, making it difficult for the reader to envision the interactions that occur.

That said, as the initially light hearted and intriguing narrative plunges into Mala’s past, the reader would happily not imagine the events taking place; the revelation that Mala and Asha are sexually abused by their father Ramchandin following his discovery that Sarah and ‘Aunt’ Lavinia (the adopted sister, and unrequited love of Ramchandin) are engaging in a lesbian relationship, and Sarah’s abandonment of her children when she leaves with Lavinia. These scenes are painfully difficult to read, and due to the level of detail they are described with, too easy to suffer along with their victims.

Despite alternating with the present day story of Mala and Tyler’s developing relationship as he encourages her to speak whilst she encourages him to fulfil his desires to become a woman, which are positive and at times, amusing; each delve into the past brings more horror – the bullying endured by other children and the ongoing abuse of Mala as she tries to protect her younger sister from their father.  Moreover, when there appears to be hope for Mala in her secret blossoming relationship with friend Boyie, this culminates in Boyie discovering the sexual abuse by Ramchandin and running away, abandoning her, like the rest of society.  On discovering Mala’s deceit, Ramchandin brutally rapes Mala, in a scene that is unnecessarily gratuitously described (– sometimes subtlety is more powerful).

The remaining visits to Mala’s past depict her physical aging and mental descent; with odd dream-like visions of Mala’s younger self Pohpoh interacting with her older self – the narrative becomes more peculiar and unreliable.  At some point, Ramchandin dies, though it is unclear when and whether Mala murdered him, and his body is left in the house to decompose. The house itself begins to decompose as Mala constructs it into a labyrinth of furniture, plants and dead insects, which by her eventual incarceration; is practically impenetrable and physically disgusting.

The discovery of the decomposed body of Ramchandin is a result of Boyie’s son, Otoh, becoming fascinated by his father’s obsession with Mala. Boyie, now Ambrose; despite abandoning Mala physically, spends much of his life asleep, awakening once a month to have a basket of food sent to Mala’s house, much to his wife’s annoyance; Ambrose’s indecisive slumbering abandonment, a source of annoyance to the reader.

During these expeditions to Mala’s house, Otoh also becomes intrigued Mala and when he eventually makes himself known to her, she mistakes his appearance for Boyie returning to her and allows him into the house where he discovers the decaying body and like his father, runs into the street where he collapses.  Otoh’s collapse and ramblings arouse suspicion, and the police decide to investigate Mala’s house.  However, unlike his indecisive father, Otoh decides to burn down Mala’s house before her secret is uncovered, and thus Mala is taken to the nursing home.

Although Otoh’s actions are redeeming, especially in comparison to his father’s, and the present day Ambrose makes the effort to visit Mala; the novel is overwhelmingly full of negative characters. It is difficult to forgive Sarah, Lavinia, Asha, Boyie and the surrounding society for their abandonment of children who are being abused; particularly when they are deserted by the very people who are supposed to love and protect them.  Moreover, despite some of the characters being somewhat stereotypical and unbelievably coincidental (two cross dressers meeting on a small island), the real frustration is derived from the unfortunate reality that human beings really are like the characters in the novel; indecisive, abandoning, abusive.

Although the surreality of some aspects of the novel, such as Mala’s dreams of Pohpoh, made the painful story less harrowing as they allow the reader to detach themselves; they also confused the issue of narration.  Despite the story being conveyed by Tyler, Mala’s detailed decline into madness could not have been relayed by him. Furthermore, despite being incredibly well written with interesting diction, the odd narrative was permeated with unexplained gaps which the finale failed to properly resolve.

A challenging novel, portraying the painful subject matter of child abuse and sometimes traumatic description of mental illness, set alongside beautiful physical descriptions of nature, and the unconventional relationship between an aging woman and a cross-dressing male nurse, the  novel’s ending does hold some positivity for Mala’s recovery and Tyler’s self-acceptance.

Overall rating: 7/10 – A challenging but traumatising read.

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