When I closed Preeta Samarasan’s first book, Evening Is the Whole Day, I sat for a time, watching my tea grow cold and watching my son chew on a polished bit of cedar wood, and tried to figure out what I was feeling. After a time (and rescuing of small black cat from being bonked by said cedar wood), the word floated by: gratitude.
Samarasan is a new writer on the scene, and her densely woven story is not only steeped in Malaysian history, culture, turmoil, and richness, but is written by a woman who knows what it is to write. And when you’re inundated daily by hundreds of slapdash, self-indulgent travelogues and truly crappy bestselling novels, a well-crafted book by a new writer is not only like breathing clean air after years of pollution, it gives one hope for a literary future. And for that I am grateful.
Knowing this was Samarasan’s first book, and wary of the accolades comparing her writing to Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, I read it carefully, looking for weakness and derivation. I found none. Instead, what I found was a narrative that reminded me far more of Isabel Allende’s earlier books than these other two world-class writers. Samarasan’s story is more accessible than Rushdie’s, and her structure is more organic and satisfying than Roy’s.
Like Allende, Samarasan laces family tragedy and mystique with the larger political and social tragedies in Malaysia’s recent history. But her focus remains more tightly on the family in question and its troubled members, a focus peculiarly satisfying. The Indian family at the center of the story are dealing with struggles both personal and political: a father whose political/social ideals fall to pieces when riots overturn his and his colleagues’ dreams of progress and equality, and whose personal hopes fall apart when the meek woman he marries turns out to be shallow and sexually frigid; his wife, who couches herself in irritable anger and petty revenges the more her children and mother-in-law show up her less agile mind and humbler background; the children themselves, caught between parents whose misery at their failed marriage rains a constant acid atmosphere on their upbringing, and who are too intelligent not to feel it. And there is the servant Chellam, ill-used, misunderstood, bewildered, and eventually thrown back to her drunken father and desperately poor family.
Most of the story is seen poignantly from the eyes of six-year-old Aasha. This gentle girl, friendly with ghosts and worshipful of her older sister, aches for love and has so many disappointments to bear that she wrings my heart. By the end of the book my maternal heart wanted to shower her with love and affection.
But it is the atmosphere of Malaysia that makes the family’s story live. Although Samarasan moved to the US when she was in high school, it is clear that her early life in Malaysia enriches every particle of narrative, backed by careful research and her continued contact with her hometown. The descriptions are rich and the narrative style speaks of a writer confident in her voice: “The night before Uma leaves for America is so hot that people wake up drenched in their beds. At dawn the sparrows are neither seen nor heard,” begins the last chapter. “By nine o’clock, leaves, flowers, hair, spirits, resolve, and biscuits left on breakfast tables are turning limp. Butter melts. Men sit under ceiling fans with their knees wide apart, wiping their backs and bellies with the cotton singlets they’ve pulled off.”
I read those lines with relief, knowing that, in the last chapter, Samarasan’s writing would not falter. Just as strong at the end as at the beginning. And I was grateful. I’ll be keeping an eye out for this talented author in the future.
(Evening Is the Whole Day is out in hardcover in the US, Canada, and the UK.)