Saturday, August 16, 2008

33. Soucouyant by David Chariandy

Soucouyant pictureCanLit time people! My boss passed me down this book while we were working together in Vancouver. Normally, I have a hard time reading these kinds of books, but it had a glossy cover and nice large margins, so I figured I could handle it. It's the story of a young black man in Ontario dealing with his mother's dementia. You can see why I might have normally hesitated! Sometimes, though, when someone random lends me a book, I'm quite motivated to read it. Can't explain it, but there it is.

It actually is quite a good book, very moving and touches upon a lot of things that I saw in my own life. I think I am more or less a contemporary of the author. I certainly didn't experience the things he did, but I saw it going on around me in my own Canadian small town. It's written so that the reader starts out pretty much in the dark. Basically all you know is that the author is of Caribbean descent, but was born in Canada, had left his mother alone in her dementia and then out of guilt or something came back. There is a nurse or assistant there who helps out, but her role and legitimacy aren't totally clear and she treats the author with a lot of contempt, possibly because he abandoned his mother.

What makes this book so successful is that there is actually a very complex story behind the situation at the beginning of the book. As the story moves forward, the backstory is slowly revealed. We learn about how his mother first came to Canada (and it's pretty harrowing; a lone, black woman in small town Ontario in the 50s), how she met his father (of Indian descent), the father's struggles to keep jobs in the factories that are laying people off, the author and his brother's struggles at school and in the town (not just being black, but having their mom be the town crazy person) and the mother's descent into dementia. It goes even deeper than that, revealing who the girl is who is helping the mom and the mom and her mother's story on the islands. It ends up being a rich and moving tapestry and a very satisfying read.

My only complaint is there is some "poetic" writing in there, little phrases of imagery, sometimes even incomplete sentences. I find these annoying. You can just see some literature professor lecturing on how the "bitter" orange peels staining the piece of paper in the kitchen garbage can represents the stain of colonialism or something like that. Fortunately, those little snippets are rare and most of the rest of the book is solid, clear writing.

I believe this book falls under the heading of "Post-Colonial Literature". Ultimately, it's about how the installation of an army base in the author's family's home island uprooted the people there, removed them from their traditional livelihoods and forced them to adapt to other means of survival (such as prostitution). This in turn led to opportunities or at least the choice to emigrate which led to strangers in strange new lands and the damage that can do to the people who lack the psychological resources to survive such changes. It all shakes out in the wash and here we are today, with a much richer, more complex and aware society (though with plenty of prejudices still remaining) so that the son of such a chain of events can be a successful author and professor at a good Canadian University. But the path there is a painful one and this book illustrates that masterfully.

I won't be leaping back into post-colonial canlit soon (there just isn't enough overall ass-kicking for my tastes), but this was a good little side trip. If you are still single and looking to pick up chicks in hipster cafés in liberal parts of town, you could do a lot worse than sit there with Soucouyant in your hands and you'd have a good read while you are at it.

1 comment:

Jason L said...

Better you than me. I think though, that the Canadian immigrant story can be a pretty fascinating one.

Good review.