The nucleus of Shani Mootoo's hypnotic Cereus Blooms at Night
(Press Gang, 264 pages, $18.95 paper) is also a crime, one committed many years before the novel opens. Mala Ramchandin lives in Paradise on a fictional Caribbean Island. Now an old woman considered mentally unstable by the nursing home staff, she has fortunately fallen under the care of Tyler, a gay nurse with an empathetic heart and an interest in helping her find her long-lost younger sister.
The narrative alternates between first person (Tyler interjecting his observations about both Mala and himself) and third person (the story of Mala's life). Mootoo handles well not only these person shifts but also the time shifts-no small feat given the complexity she is dealing with.
Mala, nicknamed Pohpoh as a child, starts out life with her sister Asha, their father Chandin, and their mother Sarah. Chandin has all his life been in love with the unattainable, aristocratic Lavinia Thoroughly. When he discovers that Lavinia is involved with Sarah, the two women run off together, trying to take Asha and Mala with them. When Chandin thwarts the girls' escape, they are left behind to defend themselves against an increasingly cruel and alcohol-driven father. He sexually abuses both of them, and in order to protect Asha (who eventually escapes the house altogether), Mala takes over the "duty" of servicing him. Eventually, she develops a split personality: Mala becomes the protector of Pohpoh.
In time, Mala has a suitor: her childhood friend Ambrose. When Chandin realizes that his daughter is seeing someone, he careens completely out of control. The result is a gut-wrenching scene of paternal rape and rage, after which Mala takes her father's well-deserved fate into her own hands.
Eventually, the whole town comes to think of Mala as mad, eccentric, a mysterious recluse, a dangerous crone. Her life seems to have stopped on the day her father learned about her and Ambrose. Ambrose, meanwhile, marries someone else but continues to drop off monthly provisions at Mala's house, though he never sees her.
Reading Cereus Blooms at Night is like reading a dream, entering a strange but believable world in which unusual possibilities flower like the cereus itself: evocative, pervasive, sensuous. Such "magic realism", when handled as adroitly as Mootoo handles it, is deeply compelling, a lush flowering of the imagination: one willingly suspends disbelief.
The Trinidad-born Mootoo, a multimedia artist and video maker as well as a writer, has created a movie with words-a film with undeniable beauty despite its framework of sadness, disappointment, and violence.