I wonder at how many of us, feeling unsafe and unprotected, either end up running far away from everything we know and love, or staying and simply going mad. I have decided today that neither option is more noble than the other. They are merely different ways of coping, and we each must cope as best as we can. You see, Asha, I must rationalize your leaving and her staying—and, as many see it—going mad. Otherwise I must admit to feelings of anger that you left your sister behind. While I don’t begrudge your leaving, I wonder if you ever tried to encourage her to go with you. Asha, from the way she calls your name, it is clear that she, more importantly than I, does not begrudge you.Cereus Blooms at Night is a novel set in a fictional Caribbean island by the name of Lantanacamara. The story opens when Nurse Tyler arrives in Paradise, the island’s major town, to work at the local Alms House. The Alms House has just received a new patient – a mostly silent, mysterious elderly lady by the name of Mala Ramchandin. Tyler, the narrator of the novel, hints at some taboo surrounding Miss Ramchandin, some rumours that cause the rest of the staff to refuse to go near her. As a result, he ends up becoming her sole caretaker. As the novel progresses, we learn about the Ramchandin family’s past through a series of flashbacks, and slowly uncover a story where the damage caused by homophobia, misogyny, racism, and the way these different forms of oppression interact has left scars that go back for generations.
In addition to being Mala Ramchandin’s story, Cereus Blooms at Night is also about Tyler himself: the reader quickly learns that although he identifies as male and is referred to by male pronouns throughout the novel, Tyler is genderqueer and has never really found a place where he felt that be belonged. Cereus Blooms at Night has a large cast of glbtq characters, and one of my favourite things about it is that even though it’s a very painful book, it’s not by any means a book solely focused on dysfunction. There are scenes of horrifying violence, particularly sexual violence, but the characters nevertheless experience joy, discover love, and find strength in their identities rather than despite them.
For example, the quiet Miss Ramchandin soon reveals to Tyler that she delights in seeing him dressed in a female nurse uniform. Her reaction to his cross-dressing is moving not only because it constitutes a form of acceptance that Tyler is not at all used to, but also because it’s so spontaneously celebratory: she looks at Tyler and sees not someone in need of comfort or reassurance, but someone who is beautiful exactly because he falls outside the gender binary.
Another thing that makes Cereus Blooms at Night stand out is Shani Mootoo’s writing: her prose is lush, rich in imagery, filled with a huge sensorial pull, and perfect at bringing her setting to life. The novel is filled with descriptions of the smells, sights and sounds of Lantanacamara, as well as of the flowers and insects that constitute some of Mootoo’s central imagery. Her writing is also infused with a mysterious Caribbean Gothic atmosphere that immediately draws the reader in. There was much about this novel that reminded me of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”: both have a nonlinear structure, a reclusive old lady at their centre, a house no one has entered in decades, a small town ablaze with rumours, a past tragedy, and family secrets. However, Mala Ramchandin’s story has very different implications, particularly in terms of gender politics.
As I said above, there are graphic (though not exploitative or gratuitous) scenes of sexual violence in Cereus Blooms at Night, but these are intermingled with moments of real beauty, of human connection, of survival against all odds – much like the cereus flower that gives the novel its title. The story ends on a note of hope: the past cannot be erased, but it’s not too late for these characters – not for the young Tyler, and not even for the elderly Miss Ramchandin. As the public scene of tenderness between Tyler and Otoh at the end of the novel demonstrates, these characters can carve out spaces where they’re allowed to be who they are and to connect to others freely, despite social censure and the narrowness of enforced gender roles.
They read it too: intoyourlungs, Amy Reads, The Lesbrary, A Striped Armchair, Puss Reboots
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