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Fiction

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

Every year I aim to read a work from Malaysian author in conjunction with the Malaysia National day which falls on the 31 August. This year I pick this book however I was on holiday so I didn’t get to read and write about it in time for the national day.

Set in 1980s Malaysia, the Rajasekharans look like a normal family. Wealthy and privileged, living in the biggest house in Kingfisher lane, their lawyer father, Appa, is a pillar of the community. The books open with Rajasekharan family’s servant girl, Chellam, is dismissed from their house for unnamed crimes, it is only the latest in a series of losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha’s life. Her grandmother has passed away under mysterious circumstances, and her older sister Uma has become distant and is planning for life abroad, with no plans to return. But what was Chellam’s unforgivable crime? And what is Appa – the respectable family patriarch hiding from his wife and children? And how did Patti, Aasha’s grandmother died?

As the layers of guarded secrets are peeled away, I read with intrigue of the many hidden intentions and misunderstandings between the family members. Amma, Appa’s wife, the poor girl who married the rich lawyer and bore his children, secretly suffers the abuse of Paati, her mother-in-law. Because Amma is not highly educated, her eldest daughter Uma considers her own mother to be beneath her. Aasha goes about in the household observing and seeing scenes that she is not suppose to see, a little like Bryony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, albeit possess a special gift (or a curse!) to communicate with ghosts. Suresh is the only son smacked in between his sisters Uma and Aasha, spout of wry humour ocassionally, not very much of his character shines through. And then there is Uncle Ballroom who seems to be the family’s black sheep who prefers to dance his way around the world and arrive unannounced in the Rakasekharans’ household one day.

The story is told in a reverse chronological order which I thought was a rather refreshing format. It is no secret by page 4, the author disclosed that “A year from today, Chellam (the servant girl) will be dead.” I gather the author wrote the novel in chronological order and then rearranged the chapters from end to the beginning, or wrote it from scratch from the end to the start of the story. Still it requires high creative writing skills to be able to pull that off.

It is a very ambitious book which aims to be a little bit of Atonement, A little bit of Kiran Desai,a little bit of Arundhati Roy and the birth of Suresh coincides with the nation’s racial riot with a writing style, quite similar to the birth of the protagonist in the birth of India as nation in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. The book risks of being derivative. The novel also make used of a lot of native Malay language and localised English, which non-natives may find a little hard to grasp.

Malaysia permeates Samarasan’s novel without didacticism about the country’s identity politics. It shows the symbiotic and separate relationship between Malays, Chinese and Indians. Jo Kukathas, the gifted satirist, once joked that in Malaysia “the Chinese do the work, the Malays take the credit, the Indians get the blame”. In 13 May 1969 Incident, a racial riot between the Chinese and Malay broke out. Officially, 196 people were killed between 13 May and 31 July 1969, as a result of the riots, although journalists and other observers have stated much higher figures. Other reports at the time suggest over 2,000 were killed by rioters, police and Malaysian Army rangers, mainly in Kuala Lumpur.

This riot was a result of Malaysia’s preferential policies, which benefited Malays over Chinese and Indians with the Malay Supremacy and preferential right which are not to be questioned under Article 153 in the nation’s constitution. Over the years post-independence, there is an undercurrent of discontentment between races but as a front all races appears united. The non-Malays who want to live on a more equal rights and terms are forced to seek educational and employment opportunities abroad thus resulting in massive brain drain in the country.

I find this review hard to write because it is something close to my heart.

In our family, this incident is a taboo and is not openly discussed lest one gets charged and risk imprisonment without proper trial. It is like an elephant in the room where no one talks about it, but it is there. Over the 55 years of independence, the policy has since created a lot of insecurities amongst other races and this feeling of spitefulness, hatred and jealousy is reflected through each and every character in the novel. Even Chellam the servant girl is not spared (I hate to spoil the story a little for you), Chellam is not innocent in this whole web of deceits although she represents the lowest caste in the society and was framed as a scapegoat. It means I ended up cringing at every character’s verbal abuse, spiteful remarks and atrocious acts quite often. I cringed at the remarks because it is so horrible as deemed unnecessary and it was as if none of the family members in the book has any blood ties with one another! Uncle Ballroom is perhaps the only likeable character in the entire book.

Ambience wise, “You won’t find India’s heat and dust here; you will sense the moist warmth of South-east Asia” as the Independent UK said.  Samarasan’s inventive prose is stunning, but the overall effect is oddly disjointed. It is a novel which deserves to be admired, and in my case, relate closely to, but hard to love. What ruin it for me was the crew of horrible characters and frequent reference to “things” which is so gross that could make your stomach churn and fight to keep your dinner down.

The plot gets complicated as it attempts to interweave private miseries with public histories, shifting the story backwards and forward at the beginning, especially poignant was Appa’s father’s, Tata, migration to Malaysia. Sailing from the Bay of Bengal where he starts his humble beginning as a dock hand at the Penang port. But theirs is a house of secrets and manipulation, and of caste and racial prejudices that the author clearly sees as a mirror of the Malaysian society.

Opening lines:

“There is, stretching delicate as bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips is beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird’s head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour.”

Remember Malaysia that way, as a peninsula and tropical paradise. It is much better than trying to understand the country. It is complicated, as this book would testify to it.

Rating: 

Paperback. Publisher: Harperscollin 2000; Length: 339 pages; Setting: Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Source: Own copy. Finished reading on the 1st September 2012.

It is about an Indian family but not set in India, hence not qualified for the South Asian challenge!

Further reference:

A book review which detailed every character in the book – contain spoilers

The 13 May incident – if you want to read more about it

About the writer:

Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school. She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of Evening Is The Whole Day won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award. She also recently won the Asian American Writer’s Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award.

“Evening is the Whole Day” is longlisted in the Orange Prize 2009.

Despite the frivolity of the style deployed, her end of the book summary titled “The Deepest Wounds” and a short interview with the author demonstrates a depth in thinking and inspiration behind the book. It writes about Samarasan’s hurts and obsessions and wanting to get this important message of inequality across to the world. There are words of hurts that rings true that almost reduced me to tears. If there is a possibility of finding a digital copy somewhere I’ll share it after this.Time is a luxury to attempt to type out every single word, maybe I’ll try scanning it and share it to you after this post.

I think Preeta Samarasan has a promising career ahead of her. I look forward to her next book.

 

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan

  1. Sounds like I would be a little bit out of my depth with this one — I should read up on Malaysian history for a while, then come back to it. I do love this title, and although I like sympathetic characters more than nasty ones, I think this could still be a good book for me. I think it’s great when authors play around with chronology.

    Posted by Jenny | September 18, 2012, 12:59 am
    • Jenny,
      I hope you like it. There are only a handful of authors who writes in English and published internationally from Malaysia, so little wonder many don’t know about the country.Look forward to hear what you think about this. Thanks for stopping by Jenny, I hope all is well for you.

      Posted by JoV | September 18, 2012, 8:12 am
  2. I read this book and enjoyed it – it’s a while ago but I think I must have missed most of the underlying issues, but even so it was a good book. It was very interesting to read more of the back ground in your post, Jo.

    Posted by Leeswammes | September 18, 2012, 5:35 am
    • Judith,
      I’m glad you like it. The underlying issues are complicated. I think I do miss the underlying issues too with other authors whose historical settings I am not familiar with. Always good for us to blog though, that way we will remember what we have read! 😉

      Posted by JoV | September 18, 2012, 8:13 am
  3. It’s great to see more stories coming out if Asia and into the mainstream, particularly when so little is translated – of course it is kind of sad that we can only rely on those who have managed to excel in the English speaking environment, but it is a start I guess. Here in France approximately 50% of fiction read/available is translated fiction and I feel they have access to much more from other cultures as a result.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | September 18, 2012, 8:02 am
    • Claire,
      I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read many French translated fiction and wish I would change that in the near future. I remember when I was in Beijing there were so many translated fiction and non-fictions, that a bookstore could stretch out like a 4-storey supermarket. (They actually provide a little cart for you to put your books in it!) Evening is the whole day is not in translation and I think the British Colonies in Asia do stand an advantage in terms of writing in English that the whole world would be taken at heart to. Japanese fictions are widely translated and they are one of my favourites. Chinese fiction is catching up. I suppose enough for me to last this lifetime. So many books to read! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | September 18, 2012, 8:19 am
  4. At one point you mentioned that you’d be able to recommend a Malaysian book for me. It sounds like this might be one you’d recommend?

    Posted by biblioglobal | September 18, 2012, 2:59 pm
    • biblioglobal,
      I would recommend Tan Twan Eng’s books. The Gift of Rain is longlisted for booker, this year shortlists for booker 2012 includes Tan Twan Eng’s book “The Garden of mists”. I suggest you start from his books first. All the best!

      Posted by JoV | September 19, 2012, 7:04 pm
  5. Sounds intriguing. I usually enjoy books done in reverse chronological order. I know some readers do not care for them but if done well, I like them quite a bit.

    A little bit like Atonement? I loved Atonement.

    Nice to see you again! Hope you had a great holiday!

    Posted by Ti | September 18, 2012, 4:11 pm
  6. I enjoyed reading this review. Reverse chronological order is a hard trick to pull off, you need a very talented author to do it justice. I like that you included a bit more about your background in this review. I think I would enjoy this book, but that some of the issues might be beyond me regarding Malaysian history. I could learn a lot from reading it.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | September 18, 2012, 7:22 pm
  7. I feel very ambivalent about this book, because on the one hand it tries its best to expose the true Malaysia, but on the other does it in a way that is very hurtful. I’m incredibly ignorant on the topic of Malaysia and its history (having only read an Inspector Singh book that happened to be situated in it), and I wonder whether this would be the right introduction. Maybe not?

    It is a very well-written review, Jo, thank you for adding a lot of background (and insider!) info: it helped painting a better picture for us who are not that familiar with Malaysia.

    Posted by Chinoiseries | September 19, 2012, 7:11 pm
    • Chinoiseries,
      Glad to be of any help. The author I must say has talent but I thought it was going about the wrong way, although I was more impressed by her motivation to write the book than the actual story of the book itself. Try Tan Twan Eng’s books as a better introduction to Malaysia. Still I admire Samarasan’s courage in publishing this book (I was surprised that it was sold in Malaysia, perhaps the politician and censorship board’s attitude have changed or perhaps they didn’t read the book in the first place!) 🙂

      Posted by JoV | September 19, 2012, 7:26 pm
  8. Goodness, that is such a picturesque description of the map view of Malaysia and Singapore. I like how Singapore is the bubble that escaped. I never thought of it that way, but now that I’ve read this description, I definitely see the bird and the bubble! Fascinating.

    Posted by olduvai | October 4, 2012, 7:05 pm

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  1. Pingback: August – Sept 2012 : Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - October 12, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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