Sunday, 24 March 2013

Evening is the Whole Day: Preeta Samarasan (Malaysia)

Set in Malaysia, this spellbinding, exuberant first novel introduces us to a prosperous Indian immigrant family, as it slowly peels away its closely guarded secrets.

When the family's servant girl, Chellam, is dismissed from the big house for unnamed crimes, it is only the latest in a series of losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha's life. Her grandmother has passed away under mysterious circumstances and her older sister has disappeared for a new life abroad, with no plans to return. Her parents, meanwhile, seem to be hiding something away - from themselves, and from one another.

As the novel tells us the story of the years leading up to these events, we learn what has happened to the hopes and dreams of a family caught up in Malaysia's troubled post-colonial history. What bought the Rajasekharan family to the Big House in Malaysia? What was Chellam's unforgivable crime? Why did the eldest daughter leave the country under strained circumstances? What is Appa - the respectable family patriarch - hiding from his wife and his children?

Through this vibrant cast of characters, and through a masterful evocation of the clashes and strains in a country where Malays, Indians and Chinese inhabitants vie for their positions in society, Preeta Samarasan brings us an enthralling saga of one household and the world beyond it.

This is an exceptionally good book, set in post colonial Malaysia, and about a highly dysfunctional small town Indian family. The dynamics between the different family members are fascinating to observe - the disapproving mother in law, the pompous son, the laid back son (who seems to have more sense than any of them), and the various daughters - all with their own issues and idiosynchrocies. The down trodden servant is perhaps the most interesting of all, and their treatment and attitude towards her says perhaps more about this family than a thousand other words.

The sttory is presnted as a time line, moving gradually forward in slow motion. This could be be annoying for some, and I admit did take some getting used to, but it actually works quite well when you begin to realise what is happening. I personally feel that this worked better than presenting the chapters in chronological sequence. It helps to build the characters slowly and give a sense of perspective, to see why they behave as they do and what drives and motivates them. You have to understand the past before you can understand the now.

I suppose for me, it was the human interest element that really shone through - the hypocrisy and double standards of the father as opposed to the common sense kindness of his brother, the black sheep, and how the relationships between the different characters developed. It says a lot about the frailties of human relationships and perhaps the characters egos too, highlighting not only the tensions in Malaysian society in general, but also within the family itself, and their treatment of the more vulnerable members. It is in some ways quite a dark book, where the various members fail to take responsbility for their actions and choices. Despite this, one is still left with a sense of hope, hope that the characters (the younger ones at least) will wake up and understand that they can change their fate, and choose a different path. If ever there was a follow up to this book, it would be interesting to see if that happened.

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