Margin: 

Exploring Modern Magical 

Realism

MINI REVIEWS ~ Summer 2004

Category: Novel
CEREUS BLOOMS AT NIGHT
© 1996, Shani Mootoo
Press Gang Publishers, Paperback

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Comments: SHANI MOOTOO, born in Ireland but raised in Trinidad, is a poet. Though Cereus Blooms at Night is not a book of poetry, it reads like one, with so many lines worth pausing over that this should be the leading reason to go out and read it right now.

Also, I will never look at periwinkle snails the same way again.

I got my first taste of contemporary Caribbean writing from this book. I read it when it first came out and was blown away by the immersive landscape, its complicated characters and the story's epic scope. But even more than that, I was impressed by its freshness. Mootoo writes distinct snapshots of life in a world I've never lived in but left aching for when I finished the book.

The basic storyline traces, in a pattern out of linear time, one woman's life: Mala, in the present, has become a recluse and a madwoman, living out the end of her days at the Paradise Alms House. Her story—or perhaps it might be more accurate to say herstory—is told from the point of view of Tyler, her male caretaker at the facility. We see Mala as a child, as a young woman, and as a woman at the end of her life as he records the bits and pieces that make up her complicated story.

The overarching narrative is one of gardening—revolving around the expectation of a rare cactus flower, the night-blooming cereus, to blossom. Characteristically, it only does so for about an hour in the middle of the night, and only once in its lifetime. In the middle of blossoming, it lets forth a burst of petals that make a popping noise, and its fragrance is described as sweet and vanilla-like.

The waiting for such a miracle in Mootoo's lovely novel is painful and yet triumphant, right to the very end, when the imminent arrival of the blossom is revealed for the promise it offers, not only to Mala, but to anyone who has ever loved without condition.

This book is an overlooked treasure, the perfect text to take on a vacation or to stave off overcast days in summer. I'll warn you, it's not light reading—there's, in particular, one scene of sexual violence I still can't shake from memory—, but overall, the story is emotional and rich in imagery, it shows off Mootoo's considerable deftness as a poet and the vivacious Tyler makes for a remarkable and memorable storyteller. Don't miss this one.

Category: Story Collection
WHISPERS FROM THE COTTON TREE ROOT: Caribbean magical realism
© 1999, Nalo Hopkinson, ed.
Invisible Cities Press, cloth

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Comments: I'M GOING to make the statement right up front: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root reads like a Who's Who of Caribbean literature. Opal Palmer Adisa, Robert Antoni, Tobias S. Buckell, Marcia Douglas, Nalo Hopkinson, Jamaica Kincaid, marina ama omowale maxwell, Olive Senior... what more could one want from a book capturing the vivid and transforming experience of Caribbean life?

Hopkinson, editor of this terrific anthology, admits that the bulk of stories come from writers of Jamaican, Guyanese and Trinidadian backgrounds, and that a rather large number of its contributors now reside outside the Caribbean. She's not surprised by this fact, nor should anyone be. So much of the Caribbean identity is shaped by the Diasporic movement, which began in post-Emancipation times and continues to this day. Nevertheless, the voices contained in Whispers are dedicated to the truthtelling of a Caribbean history and identity that, only within the last two decades, has negotiated the cultural space that the colonists nearly erased.

"...fabulist was exactly the right word to describe the anthology," writes Hopkinson in her introduction. "The stories invoke a sense of fable. ... The irrational, the inexplicable, and the mysterious exist side by side with the daily events of life. Questioning the irrational overmuch is unlikely to yield a rational answer, and may prove dangerous..."

The book's sections are divided into arenas with small descriptive prefaces that shed some interesting light on the Caribbean experience. For example, " 'Membah" takes on creation myth and old stories. "The Broad Dutty Water" advances pervasive cultural notions about the sea. "Down Inside the Chute" reveals the basis for the anthology's title:

"The branches of memory are buttressed by roots. Tradition has it that duppies (spirits) reside in the cotton tree roots. Older people with longer memories might be more precise—the spirits of our ancestors are supposed to inhabit those roots, and under the right circumstances they will talk to us from the base of the cotton tree...The late master calypsonian Lord Kitchener had a song about walking through a graveyard at night, tripping on a bamboo root, and falling 'down inside a chute,' where the spirits of the dead buried in the earth tried to get at him..."

Not all of the stories invoke magical realism—but no matter. This is a worthwhile collection. Some favorite magical realist stories to recommend include the heartbreaking "Spurn Babylon" by Tobias S. Buckell, marina ama omowale maxwell's mythic "Devil Beads" and Hopkinson's "The Glass Bottle Trick," which she describes as her take on "a hybrid story set in a region of the world that has survived through the hybridization of many cultures."

My only regret about this collection? It ends a short-lived series on fabulist writing that Invisible Cities Press originally planned, but which fell away with a change in management. It joins another quality title, With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction as the only remnant of an effort which originally included fabulist tales from the southern United States and Native American. Darn. Whispers and Wonder were a powerful beginning to a progressive new vision for anthologies. I'm sorry the other two (and who knows what others, beyond them?) never got to see the light of day.

Category: Novel
WIDE SARGASSO SEA (a Norton critical edition)
© 1999, Jean Rhys
W.W. Norton & Company, paperback

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Comments: IT'S LIKELY that most contemporary Americans have encountered Wide Sargasso Sea as a film, and not as the novel from 1966 which took the world by storm, and which continues to inspire readers who love gothic texts.

Wide Sargasso Sea is Rhys's imagined prequel to the widely read Jane Eyre—it gives an imagined history to the crazy woman in Rochester's attic. In doing so, it presents insights into Caribbean identity that are beautiful, terrible and evocative all at once.

The book itself is a quick and easy read in two parts, but what comes in particularly handy are the various Backgrounds and Criticism pages at the back of the book. What a treasury! Rachel Carson leads with an illumating description of the Sargasso Sea itself: "It is so different from any other place on earth that it may well be considered a definite geographic region...The Sargasso, with all its legendary terrors for sailing ships, is a creation of the great currents of the North Atlantic that encircle it and bring into it the millions of tons of floating sargassum weed from which the place derives its name, and all the weird assemblage of animals that live in the weed."

For fans of Jane Eyre, four selections extracted from the Brontë classic ("Jane Eyre and Bertha," "The Ruined Wedding," "Rochester's Story" and "Fire at Thornfield Hall") highlight the shared territory of Rhys's and Brontë's stories. For those readers captivated by the crazy woman in the attic, these comparative sections are sure to provide an original and unexpected solution to the mystery of her identity, as does Michael Thorpe's discussion, "The Other Side." Also recommended: Wilson Harris's "Carnival of Psyche," Mona Fayad's "Unquiet Ghosts" and the many letters Jean Rhys wrote with regard to this short work, which took her more than two decades to write.

Francis Wyndham, who took part in an extended correspondence with Rhys, writes in the book's preface that "it is an irony that Rhys, who always hated England and English culture and who perceived herself to be, as a displaced colonial, the object of English disdain and hatred, should be declared a light of English culture ... she spent most of her life in small, remote English villages ... never considered herself to be English and remained throughout her life an incisive and bitter critic of what she perceived to be English values." What makes the story behind her book even more interesting is that fact that she left Dominica, the place of her birth, at age 17 for England, only returning once, at age 46, for a brief visit.

I recommend reading this specific edition of Rhys's novel, with all the added Norton accoutrements, if you're interested in not only a mesmerizing story, but an enlightening story-behind-the-story—history, fable and imagination together in one place.

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