The scary secret of Paradise

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo Granta pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
In the small Caribbean town of Paradise, Lantanacamara, an elderly woman is brought into an alms house by two policemen. Although frail as well as drugged, she is strapped down on her stretcher with leather bindings. None of the nurses will go anywhere near her because strange and fearful rumours about Mala Ramchandin are the rockbed of the town's gossip. Her care is assigned to the lonely Tyler, "the only Lantanacamaran man ever to have trained in the profession of nursing".

The traumatic story of Mala's past is pieced together gradually by Tyler, through recollections of Paradise residents, and, later, the recovered memories of Mala herself. Mootoo seems to suggest that no one is an isolated being, that each generation not only inherits genes, but must suffer the outcome of the various irresponsible paths taken by their forebears. This part of the novel reads like a family saga of the best possible kind - complicated, weaving, impassioned, and pitted with scandal. The germ of Mala's story goes back to her adopted grandparents, wealthy, white missionary "Wetlanders" who take into their care an Asian boy, Chandin Ramchandin. Chandin becomes obsessed with their poised, self-assured daughter Lavinia; when she spurns him, he marries her best friend, an Asian girl called Sarah, out of spite. Lavinia and Sarah fall in love and run away together; Paradise is scandalised; and Mala and her sister are left to the mercy of their mad, abusive, alcoholic father. Don't let the gentle lyricism of her writing lull you into a false sense of security: the secret at the novel's heart is what you secretly fear all along, but the way Mootoo tells it - from the removed, confused point of view of Mala's erstwhile suitor's son - makes it scarier than Psycho.

Born in Ireland and brought up in Trinidad, Mootoo has written a debut novel of extraordinary complexity and a curious linguistic beauty. With its multiple-narrator structure, much of it is in a pidgin Asian-Caribbean: "Don't 'fraid she. It have nothing to be afraid of. Unless, of course, you used to go ... and tief she mango". Mootoo is skilled at the transference of the emotional state into a tinglingly powerful description of the physical. To suppress a memory of her mother abandoning her, Mala smears raw pepper on her tongue: "she didn't swallow, keeping the fire on her tongue, by then so blistered that parts of the top layer had ... curled back like rose petals dipped in acid."

She has perhaps fallen into the trap of the first-time novelist: of trying to cram too much into one book. The framework Tyler plot doesn't seem strictly necessary and, in contrast to the horrifying vividness of the Ramchandin family saga, is often unengagingly inert. Mootoo's preoccupation with this part of the story - the fluidity of gender and sexuality - is nowhere near as fully explored as it ought to be. Tyler is gay, with transvestite leanings. Otoh/ Ambrosia, the object of Tyler's desires, is a woman who has lived as a man since childhood. But this transformation is glossed over with an odd insouciance: "the child walked ... and dressed and talked ... like an authentic boy so that [the mother] soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl ... Hours of mind-dulling exercise streamlined Ambrosia into an angular, hard-bodied creature and tampered with the flow of whatever hormonal juices defined him." I don't know much about these things, but I'm sure it's not that simple.

It is, on the whole, a brilliant, sprawling, sensuous narrative. Its scorching effect will last considerably longer than the flower of the title (which blooms only for one night). Just don't read the denouement when you're on your own in the house. Especially if it has a basement.

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