Canadian novelist Maharaj makes his U.S. debut with this meandering tale about poor, politically aware sugarcane farmers in newly independent Trinidad during the 1960s.
Righteous, preachy Narpat raises his son Jeeves to revere the land in their hardscrabble agricultural town of Lengua. As the youngest child and only boy, Jeeves accompanies his eccentric, politically querulous father to work in the sugarcane fields, which barely supports the family. Maharaj’s narrative is a collection of loose-fitting memories gathered around the teachings of Narpat, a Hindu Brahmin whose liberal education and plans for human advancement ceaselessly and often disastrously collide with his limited means and impoverished station in life, to the chagrin of long-suffering wife Dulari. Jeeves and his three sisters are tediously subjected to their father’s moralistic fables and paranoid injunctions: They are not allowed to eat the sugary junk food sold by vendors because it will poison them; they are not allowed to celebrate Christmas because they will become “gift-children” who expect something for nothing; and Jeeves has to sleep on a punishing fiber mattress to strengthen his character. In a period of triumph for the family, Narpat wins election as county councilor and is able to effect some much-needed modernization for the farmers while resisting the seizure of land for development. Yet his life’s plan (to build a sugar mill) fizzles in the midst of national decrepitude, along with other idealistic schemes. Meanwhile, Jeeves attends the town’s one-room schoolhouse under the brief tenure of Mr. Doon, a Canadian beat poet, and is eventually farmed out to a private school near Princes Town, where he develops a passion for the movies while working at his odious, well-off Uncle Bhola’s cinema. The story’s center poignantly remains the imperious, mythically fragile patriarch, Narpat.
Something of a mess, but packed lushly with close observation and ringing with Trinidadians’ vernacular speech.