(Review originally posted on my livejournal account: xhttp://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/35223.html)Why I Read It:
Required reading for my Gender and Sexuality in Literature class.
I had never heard of this book before finding out it was an assigned text for one of my classes, which is kind of sad because this was written by a Canadian author (though she was born in Ireland and grew up in Trinidad before immigrating to Canada.) It apparently received a lot of critical acclaim when it first came out, but seeing as I was only seven years old, it makes sense that I wouldn't remember THAT. Anyway, my point for all this is that I had zero expectations jumping into this, and had no idea what to expect.
What I got was something incredibly original: the story read a little bit like a gothic story set in the Caribbean with heavy overtones of post-colonialism, with a hint of magic realism and a lot of playing around with gender. These all sound like disparate parts, but Mootoo was somehow able to bring them all together in a cohesive whole.
I should clarify that this isn't really a gothic novel set in the Caribbean. It has gothic elements in it, such as this being a multi-generational story that is full of violence and taboo (most notably the rape of the main character Mala at the hands of her father). There's also a dash of magical realism that gives it a bit of that element of the supernatural that can be found in gothic novels as well. The story of the life of Mala Ramchandin is an incredibly sad one; it made me ache a little with how depressing everything was. I do also feel compelled to warn that anyone who is triggered by scenes of abuse (verbal and sexual) should stay far away from this novel. There was a rape scene closer to the end of the book that had my stomach churning. Ultimately though, the story ends on a note of hope, which was a welcome relief to all the despair that came before it. Despite how depressing it all is though, the story of Mala Ramchandin is incredibly compelling as well, and is perfectly paced by Mootoo. As the story progresses, things wind tighter and tighter as the reader approaches the eminent disaster that unravels Mala's life. It's not told in chronological order, so it was interesting watching the elements of the story that were initially confusing or just had no context all come together in the end.
Throughout the novel, there's a lot of ambiguity regarding gender and sexuality. Nurse Tyler for example, is gay, a cross-dresser, still identifies as male, but is largely characterized in the female spectrum. Then we have Otoh, someone who was born a female, then "transforms" into a male (an instance of the dash of magical realism found in the novel) but it still *biologically* female. Mootoo however, still uses male pronouns whenever referring to Otoh. This brought up some interesting discussion in my class about the nature of Tyler and Otoh's budding relationship. Some people argued that while they both identified as men (which would make their relationship homosexual) they still felt that the book was perpetuating heteronormativity because Otoh was still biologically a woman. Others felt that whether Otoh had a vagina or not irrelevant because he still identified as male (I more a part of the latter camp.) It's a lot of fodder for interesting discussion and I love how Mootoo bent and twisted up gender in this way and presented it as something so fluid.
As I mentioned earlier, the writing is beautiful. It feels like every word is important, and everything is loaded with symbolism, from the recurrence of insects, to the cereus flower (which reflects the climax of the novel perfectly.)Final Judgment:
This is probably one of the most original books I have ever read. It's a story set in the Caribbean that has elements of the gothic, some magic realism and a little gender-bending. These might not sound like they all go together, but Mootoo pulled it off amazingly. The story is an incredibly sad one, but it ultimately ends up being a very hopeful one. There is a lot of scenes of abuse though, so if this is triggering for you, I would advise to stay away. With that, I wholeheartedly recommend this book, especially if you're looking for a book that's doing something completely different from the norm (it doesn't hurt that it's very well written as well.)