A complex web of public and private histories shared by an Indian immigrant family is painstakingly examined in the ambitious first novel from Malaysia native Samarasan.
The Rajasekharans, heirs to a commercial fortune dominated by a successful rubber plantation, seem blessed. Patriarch Raju is a prominent attorney; his beautiful wife Vasanthi has risen far above her humble origins; their brilliant and beautiful eldest daughter Uma is on her way to a prestigious American university (in 1980, when the story’s major actions occur), and her younger brother Suresh and sister Aasha seem gifted and responsible enough to emulate the much-admired Uma. But secrets lurk in the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, where Uma’s imminent departure is overshadowed by the suspicious death of her paternal grandmother (“Paati”), as well as the dismissal (for undisclosed reasons) of house servant girl Chellam—whose dirt-poor family provides a counterpoint to the privileged lives of her employers. Six-year-old Aasha communes matter-of-factly with her family’s ghosts (including that of the outraged Paati). And Aasha’s dreamlike discoveries are deftly paralleled by lengthy flashbacks which reveal—with both considerable skill and wearying overemphasis—guilty burdens borne by the ambitious Raju (who seems to have everything and wants even more); both Vasanthi and Paati, each of whom has overstepped marital boundaries; the ever-embittered Chellam; and—a late-arriving yet crucial character—black-sheep “Uncle Ballroom” (Balu), a pathetic underachiever inhibited by all he knows and cannot reveal.
Samarasan has probably attempted too much in this overstuffed debut. But she scores impressively with the creation of an intimate, gossipy omniscient narrative voice that’s the perfect vehicle for her slowly unfolding, intricately layered story.