Friday, August 19, 2011

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

This book combines my love of domestic fiction with my love of reading about unfamiliar places. I heard about it from Nancy Pearl who included it in her list of 10 Terrific Summer Reads back in June. Several books on her list appealed to me but this was the only one the library had in, so it’s the only one I’ve read so far.

Set in Malaysia in the 1980’s this book is the story of an affluent Indian family: father, mother, grandmother, three children, and several servants. Uma, the oldest girl, is leaving for Columbia University in New York as the book opens. Samarasan uses a mostly backwards-running story line to tell the family’s history, focusing especially closely on Uma, her little sister Aasha, and a servant girl called Chellam (without neglecting the rest of the family, the neighbors, the distant relatives….it’s a long book).

Like all families, these people have agendas, secrets, and hidden loyalties. Are theirs any worse than anyone else’s? Samarasan focuses her camera so closely on each character that their foibles sometimes seem magnified into something larger than they really are. Uma spends the months before she leaves for New York in a period of what seems like melancholy, pushing her parents and siblings away, spending hours alone in her room. While the family and Samarasan make much of her gloominess, to me she just seemed like a typical teen girl dealing with her fears of impending adulthood.

But this is a minor complaint. Samarasan has a lovely original voice, and much of this book is quite funny. Aasha is especially delightful – her best friend is the ghost of a 19th century child who was the daughter of their house’s original owner. Can Aasha really see ghosts? Or does she just have a good imagination? Aasha’s grandmother Paati and mother Vasanthi relish their decades-long toxic feud, complete with vendettas, sabotage, and character assassination. The father Raju has a mistress, the neighbors have a soothsayer in their family: what more could a reader want?

(Book 24, 2011)


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