Thursday, 24 November 2016

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

I am sort of at a loss for how to write this review. I wanted to like Cereus Blooms at Night, but I found it curiously weightless. I can see what it's striving for, but as far as I'm concerned, it never comes near to reaching it. It's hard to put your finger on what exactly is missing, but it feels like it's ticking a lot of the literature checkboxes, without ever doing anything more to become a living breathing urgent tale.

Given that this is a tale of incest in a hot climate, it sort of feels like it could go one of two ways. This could either by an "issue" novel, written for easy consumption and using all the textbook reactions to a situation to define each of the characters, or it could be going for the status of literature, taking its subject and writing about it lyrically or starkly, presenting difficult subject matter in such a way that it is more than just a straightforward narrative.

Mootoo certainly seems to be aiming for the latter, the problem is just that not all attempts at creating literature end up anywhere near the "great" end of the court. Many more are those that try and fall short, and while they may still be worthy efforts, there's just something...missing.

That's how I feel about this book. There's something missing. Several somethings, actually. Most of it, I think, is that it feels too formless. The characters, by the end, are still largely not much more than the brief sentence I would come up with to describe each one. They never made the leap to vivid individuals for me. It's hard to say what exactly could be done to reach that level, but Cereus just never quite gets there. Tyler is never a whole lot more than "gay male nurse." Otoh than "transgender son." We only ever know Mala, the main character's mother and mother's lover in backstory, so Sarah and Lavinia remain ciphers. Mala's sister runs off young, so we don't know her either.

And Mala we get to know, sort of, but are kept at a distance by her mental illness and opacity as much as she has kept everyone else in the story away. There is so much distance here, and so little connection.

Mala's story is ugly, and I just don't know that Mootoo does service to it. There are moments of stark brutality and they are difficult, and moments of fear and hiding, but somehow it still just never reaches the level I wanted. I don't have a prescription for what would have made it better - each piece of literature has to redefine what that means on its own terms. But this doesn't feel like a success.

The one moment that did work for me, and I wish more had been like this or done with this, was the moment when it is revealed what happened to Asha, Mala's sister, after she ran away, and why she had never communicated to Mala after her departure. It's a powerful moment of seeing how community disapproval can contribute to further victimize those who already needed help, but it's so brief that it disappears. Mala as a character is not able to respond in such a way to let us know what that knowledge does to her.

It's not terrible, but it just feels more like Mootoo is checking off the boxes in "what you need to write a literary novel" instead of discovering her own voice. The characters are not specific enough, and failed to come to life for me. It's a valiant attempt, and not every attempt succeeds. There's enough here for me to want to know more of what this author could do, but ultimately, I was dissatisfied with Cereus Blooms at Night.

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