Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo

Review copy courtesy WordFest

Review copy courtesy WordFest

One of the great strengths of the Giller Prize, since year one, has been the attention that it has drawn to works by authors who now live in Canada but were born and raised elsewhere — and have chosen to return to those roots in their fiction. Indeed, of 15 winners to date, four meet that description — M. G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe. So it is a delight to report that 2009′s longlist features another title from that tradition — Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo — a book that at this early stage in my longlist reading I very much look forward to seeing on the shortlist.

Born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo has lived in Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto) for more than 20 years. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, made the Giller short list; her second, He Drown She In The Sea, was IMPAC longlisted — so she is no stranger to international prize competitions.

giller avatarValmiki’s Daughter is set in Trinidad and, as the title suggests, focuses on that island’s Indian community that V.S. Naipul has made familiar to readers internationally. Valmiki Krishnu is a well-off doctor, with two maturing daughters Viveka and Vashti. He also has a private life shrouded in intrigue:

Just before moving onward, you will be hit with a strong, sweet whiff of garlic, scallions and ginger as they are sauteed, a street away, in peanut and sesame oil. You will smell, but you won’t see, The Victory Hotel, which houses The Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, the best hotel and the best restaurant this side of the oil refinery. The hotel is mostly used by visitors to the island, but it is known to be available on occasion to certain businessmen and professionals who are willing to pay the daily double-room rate for the privacy of their illicit pleasures. The Golden Dragon is where the aldermen, the mayor, and lawyers take their lunch, and where some of the doctors take theirs too. On occasion you will find Dr. Krishnu there. He usually requests one of several private dining suites at the back of the restaurant. He will, of course, not be alone, but the staff is discreet.

Those companions tend to be married, white women but that is not Dr. Krishnu’s biggest secret. He has taken up hunting (at which he is hopeless) because it gives him the chance to retreat to the woods for the weekend with Saul: “These days, Saul was the object of Valmiki’s most powerful and basest desires.” Saul has re-awakened in Dr. Vishnu the passions and memories of his student days and the compromise that he made in abandoning them to pursue a “normal” life.

While Mootoo is careful to indicate that the doctor’s wife, Devika, actively avoids approaching this issue, the author leaves little doubt that the wife is fully aware of it. Indeed, as the early parts of the novel unfold, it is becoming even more threatening. Eldest daughter Viveka is not only mannish in appearance and attitude, she displays no interest in any possible suitor: Has she inherited her father’s “tendencies”? Viveka wants to join a local all-women’s sports club that meets twice a week to play volleyball, immediately arousing her mother’s suspicion:

Devika asked her if she was crazy, wanting to go and play a game in a club that was open to anybody and, of all places, in that part of the city. Whereupon Viveka reminded them that Helen, daughter of their financial adviser, was on a team that played there. Devika had responded, “I don’t care if the Queen’s children play on that court, my children are not playing there. You should know better than asking.”

Those quotes pretty much sum up the tensions around which Mootoo builds her story. There is the tension of class and its requirement for appropriate behavior. There are the tensions of family history and the fear that the failings of the previous generation will be revisited in this one. And, as the novel unfolds, there is the tension of a young woman facing the conflict between what she knows she wants (however “wrong” it might be) and what is expected of her.

That last tension is brought to a head with the arrival back home from Canada of Nayan, son of the local cocoa farming magnate, and his French wife, Anick. Anick brings both North American and European modernism to the stilted culture of upper-class Trinidad; it is not long until her friendship with Viveka brings the hidden issues that all of the Krishnu family want to avoid to the forefront.

While that is a rather slim story line, Mootoo carries it off with aplomb. She has a very perceptive eye for detail, not just in personal relationships but for the surrounding environment as well. And she is adroit at slowly but surely building the stretching of the tensions that are central to the book. Valmiki, Devika and Viveka all become fully-developed characters — as does the story of how each is imprisoned by the social mores that surround them.

The result, for this reader, is a highly successful, thoughtful novel. It is neither earth-shattering, nor post-colonial (the politics of Trinidad and race play almost no part). Rather it is an intriguing study of the internal conflict faced by a young woman and the price that conflict extracts from her family.

(EDIT) A final note about this book — it was originally published in November 2008, too late for last year’s Giller but eligible for this year. The paperback edition will be available in early November. I read an advance copy, thoughtfully provided by WordFest, the Banff-Calgary authors’ festival, where Shani Mootoo will be appearing. It was a finished book, so I’m going to assume that Mootoo’s publishers, Canada’s well-regarded House of Anansi, will be pushing forward the release date now that it has been Giller longlisted. For the sake of eager readers, I certainly hope so — it is a very good book.

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5 Responses to “Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Excellent review, Kevin. This is a book of which I almost certainly would not have been aware but for your coverage of the Giller Prize. Now, I am strongly considering it for my TBR pile. If it is not out yet, I have time to decide. I am committed to reading at least one candidate (maybe more), so I will be watching the rest of the Giller Prize coverage with interest.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I note from your blog that you heard Junot Diaz in D.C. this weekend — I think that this book makes a very interesting contrast with Oscar Wao. While Diaz explores what happens to people who attempt to escape their Caribbean colonialist fate, Mootoo focuses on the compromises of those who choose to stay. And to expand the comparison, I’d suggest looking into Sam Selvon’s Moses trilogy (all three are reviewed on this blog) for a look at the same story explored almost half a century earlier. It is a rich vein for fiction and I think Valmiki’s Daughter is a worthwhile addition.

  3. Sarah MacLachlan Says:

    Kevin:

    Shani’s book was published last November, and thus missed being eligible for the 2008 Giller Prize. But as you’ve seen it is eligible and on the longlist this year. We’ll be publishing the paperback in the next couple of weeks.

    Thanks for drawing attention to this wonderful novel.

    Best,

    Sarah MacLachlan
    President
    House of Anansi

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Sarah. I was relying on Chapters and amazon data and I now realize that those dates refer to the paperback, not the hardcover. So people have no excuse for not buying this very good book. I will correct the post and appreciate that you have updated me. I do hope the novel makes it to the shortlist — and thanks to Anansi for bringing us such a fine book.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That is indeed an excellent review Kevin, and it sounds a pleasure of a novel. With good enough writing, a slim story line is no obstacle to a good book (indeed, with good enough writing, too rich a story line may become a problem) and this sounds well written. Like Kerry, I’ll be looking into this one further.

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