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Digging Up Secrets in a Garden of Earthy Pains, Pleasures

CEREUS BLOOMS AT NIGHT By Shani Mootoo; Grove Press $23, 252 pages


The motif that runs through "Cereus Blooms at Night," Shani Mootoo's strong, sad and sensual first novel, is the behavior of an exotic plant. Without blossoms, the rare night-blooming cereus is "little more than an uninteresting tangle of leafage"; in flower, however, the plant is "stunningly gorgeous." Its fragrant mysterious beauty is such that it is revealed only to a careful and patient observer.

The same might be said of Mala Ramchandin, the woman whose long, bruised life is chronicled here, and of Nurse Tyler, the narrator who painstakingly does the chronicling. Tyler is the only male nurse at the ironically named Paradise Alms House on Lantanacamara, a fictional Caribbean island. As a man who is attracted to men, the outcast Tyler is a sensitive observer of the similarly outcast Mala, who arrives at the almshouse amid swirls of long-standing rumor and reputation.

A crazed old lady who lives in her garden, Mala communes with insects and is taunted by adolescents. When she is delivered to the almshouse, she is filthy, mute, paralyzed--and accused of a crime in which there is (apparently) no victim, no evidence and no witness. But there is a powerful story, and Tyler sets about reconstructing it, first by nursing Mala back to life and volubility, and second by befriending Otoh Mohanty, the son of Ambrose Mohanty, Mala's now ancient former beau.

"Cereus Blooms at Night" is wrought as deftly as a piece of lacework. Its narrative does not unfold in a linear manner but radiates outward in an elaborate--almost floriferous--design in which the events in time present overlap the events in time past. In time present, Tyler revives Mala and becomes reconciled to his sexuality. Yet it is to the events of the past that Mootoo brings her most inspired attention.

Sexual abuse is at the core of Mala's biography. Although abuse has become a staple of countless B novels and C movies, as rendered here the subject possesses a fresh power to disturb and to move. Mootoo infuses Mala's story with an aura of both the particular and the inevitable. She begins by reaching back two generations to Mala's grandfather, who immigrates to Lantanacamara from India as a way of shedding his "inherited karmic destiny as a servant laborer."

Mala's grandfather further reinvents his family by allowing his son, Chandin, to be adopted and raised by the Rev. Thoroughly and his wife. Chandin is educated and converted to Christianity. He falls in love, inappropriately, with Thoroughly's daughter, Lavinia, who is soon sent abroad, where she becomes engaged to a man of her own class. In retaliation, Chandin marries a school friend, Sarah, and fathers Mala and her sister, Asha. When Lavinia returns to Lantanacamara, her engagement broken, she regularly visits Chandin and his family, where the attraction is not Chandin, however, but Sarah, as young Mala clearly perceives. Eventually the two women run off together, and the angry, devastated Chandin begins bedding his daughters.


Time passes. Asha herself runs away, while Mala remains in Chandin's power. One day, Mala's childhood friend Ambrose returns from being schooled abroad and comes to see, and woo, Mala. Mala responds by imagining a life free from her father's control. In "her first time with someone of her own choice" Mala and Ambrose make love. "She met, mirrored and embraced his passion," Mootoo writes, and after this beautifully drawn sexual encounter, character and reader alike feel hope. It is soon extinguished, though, when the ever-watchful Chandin discovers that a man has been, as he puts it, "tiefing" his baby. The dramatic confrontation that erupts between father and daughter results in the crime that in time brings Mala to the almshouse.

To summarize Mala's story thus is inevitably to deprive it of the vibrant and respectful treatment it receives in Mootoo's hands. Mala is subtly faceted. Like many victims of abuse, she feels guilt and complicity along with anger and rage. The refuge she seeks communing with plant and insect life is a moving expression of both her tenderness and her disconnection from her fellow human beings. Her moments of intimacy with Ambrose reverberate all the more poignantly because of where Mootoo has placed them in the novel, after we know how the relationship ends.

While some of the novel's secondary characters are less well-explored, namely Lavinia, Sarah and even the courtly Ambrose Mohanty, Mala fully lives up to a remark the gardener at the almshouse makes to Tyler. "Somehow you don't question things until you come face to face with [a] person," he says, "and suddenly--suddenly you realize that behind all them stories it have a flesh-and-blood, breathing, feeling person who capable of hurting, yes!" Mala Ramchandin is indeed a hurting, flesh-and-blood person, a memorable creation at the core of a confident and lively first novel.

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