Publicists compare Preeta Samarasan's first novel with the works of Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy, as if being a young, photogenic woman of Indian origin, she shares something with them. Her ancestry won't take us far: to understand Samarasan, place the novel in its milieu, Malaysia, where she was born. She moved to the US for high school, and lives in France.
You won't find India's heat and dust here; you will sense the moist warmth of South-east Asia. Samarasan represents the quiet emergence of new Malaysian writing in books such as Rani Manicka's The Rice Mother and Touching Earth, Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory, and Tan Twan Eng's Booker-longlisted The Gift of Rain last year. These writers have significantly broadened our understanding of the region earlier seen largely through the gin-soaked, misty eyes of Somerset Maugham, the Tiger-beer induced nostalgia of Anthony Burgess, or the laconic fiction of Paul Theroux.
Malaysia permeates Samarasan's novel without didacticism about the country's identity politics. It shows the symbiotic and separate relationship between Malays, Chinese and Indians. Jo Kukathas, the gifted satirist, once joked that in Malaysia "the Chinese do the work, the Malays take the credit, the Indians get the blame". Buried within the quip is a stark divide, explaining the consequences of the May 1969 riots which formed the basis of Lloyd Fernando's 1993 novel, Green is the Colour.
Those riots led to Malaysia's preferential policies, which benefited Malays over Chinese and Indians, so forcing many non-Malays to seek educational and employment opportunities abroad. Another indirect consequence was the Indian protest there earlier this year, because not everyone can leave for a job in Singapore, Sydney or Seattle.
Samarasan provides a breezy, witty history of contemporary Malaysia early in the novel. She poignantly notes the static worldview of a Malaysian kampung (village): the Malay toiling in the paddy, the Indian in the plantation, and the Chinese, high on opium, working in the tin mine. Plus ça change... There are rules of behaviour, but wealth rides roughshod over that. Some Indians, through patronage or luck, have reached the top of the social aristocracy, like her Rajasekharan family. Many, like the servant-girl Chellam, remain at the bottom.
The Rajasekharans live in the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, where the novel is set. The patriarch is a lawyer and owns a plantation. His daughter is estranged from her parents, planning to leave for studies in the US. There are inconvenient secrets, such as the grandmother's death and Chellam's eviction. Imagined slights lead to permanent resentments, clandestine adultery and incest.
Samarasan's novel is multi-layered: it includes a child who can communicate with ghosts, a brother who tries to make sense of the world through humour, a mother never happy with herself, having risen above her class, and a ne'er-do-well cousin who knows much but can tell little and is misunderstood. The plot gets complicated as it attempts to interweave private miseries with public histories, shifting the story backwards through flashbacks. The technique is promising, but this is not Time's Arrow. There are stylistic nods to other writers, but the novel redeems itself by avoiding being being derivative.
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