More often that not, I pick the next book I’ll read on a whim, which generally works out pretty well. As I started Cereus Blooms at Night, I felt that I’d made the wrong decision, yet it’s a testament to the power of this formidable book that I quickly changed my mind. Content wise, it’s reminiscent of The God of Small Things – a story of love, childhood trauma, transgression, lost voices and tragic poetry.
When Cereus Blooms at Night opens, we meet Tyler, a gay male nurse in Trinidad (or a country quite like it) who, disliked by his coworkers, receives the assignment no one wants – caring for the town’s legendary crazy woman, Mala Ramchandin, who was recently tried for murder. Mala doesn’t speak, just emulates noises from the natural world, and seems no longer civilized. Tyler is captivated by the mystery of how she became this way, and as he gently helps Mala reconnect with the human world, the reader is privy to bits and pieces of Mala’s story.
This dark, multi-generational story is perhaps above all one of boundaries – some crossed, some lost – but none to be ignored. The story begins with Chandin Ramchandin, Mala’s Trinidadian father, who falls in love with Reverend’s white daughter, Lavinia, who is supposedly like a sister to him. Yet for the Reverend, race is a major boundary, though he insists he objects rather to the Chandin’s “incestuous” attraction (some rather dark foreshadowing here). When Chandin hears Lavinia is engaged to be married to someone else from the Shivering Northern Wetlands (England, or somewhere like it), he proposes to Lavinia’s best friend, Sarah, a local woman.
After Sarah bears Mala and Asha, Lavinia returns from the Shivering Northern Wetlands, unmarried and as it turns out, not in love with Chandin, but with Sarah. And so there is to be an interracial match after all, one far more forbidden than the Reverend could have imagined. Yet despite inklings that something is not right, Mala and Asha marvel at the womens’ affection and are just as besotted with their aunt as their mother. The foursome decide to leave Chandin, but their departure is interrupted by his unexpected return and the women fleeing for their lives, must leave the girls behind.
After this tragic event, things can only get worse for Mala, whose abusive, alcoholic father eventually turns to her and Asha to satisfy his own lust and desire for control. And so with the violation of the most fundamental of taboos another boundary is crossed – and unlike many of the others, this one leads not to love, but suffering.
Mala, now a woman marked for suffering and tragedy, eventually abandoned by her only friend Ambrose, by her sister Asha and by society which sees her as a tainted woman, is separated from all possible support, all possible love and must turn to nature instead – to its plants and insects, to its natural cycles as her only consolation. She in fact, creates her own boundary, between her childhood self “Pohpoh” and the wild woman she has become. Since there is no one else to take care of her, she must become the caretaker for her younger, more fragile self.
There is more to the story, but I’ll leave some to be discovered and focus instead on a major question: In a novel where women may love women and women may become men and women who become men may love other men and whites may love blacks and brothers love sisters and fathers desire daughters there are few boundaries that remain. So how to decide which ones are necessary? It seems the most insurmountable violence of the novel is in fact separation, and consequently, Mootoo seems to suggest that crossing boundaries out of genuine love is permissible. It may mean ignoring traditional boundaries as to who makes an acceptible life partner, or it may simply mean helping someone, who, like Mala, has crossed too far beyond those boundaries that are necessary (here between sanity and insanity, between loneliness and community).
Like the cereus flower, Mootoo’s language is rich, heady and at times overpowering, but not overwraught. As a first novel (or any novel) Cereus is deserving of all its praise (nominated for the Giller, the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize) and I can’t wait to read Mootoo’s newer books to see how this young author has blossomed.