How does a person respond to suffering? With this novel of quiet resilience, award-winning Trinidadian-Canadian novelist Maharaj (Adjacentland, 2018, etc.) proposes an answer.
Focusing on Orbits, an overweight man who has suffered years of abuse, trauma, and horrendous luck, the novel tracks his tumultuous experiences on “the island,” an unnamed location (recognizable as Trinidad) still shaped by colonial encounter: a bullied childhood, a first job as a swamp tour guide, a failed marriage, a strained parenthood, a brother’s suicide, an important friendship, a clandestine affair, a run for office, and, eventually, the midlife excavations that release him from the anguish of “unexamined loss.” In the process, Maharaj’s novel stretches the formal and emotional range of the coming-of-age story, deferring its payoff past adulthood and into middle age, where, for Orbits, unexpected revelations reframe the meanings of past suffering. While often bleak and occasionally off-putting—Orbits’ neuroses are rendered in unsettling fidelity, each of his memories increasingly “burdened” by the weight of the others—Maharaj’s knowing prose propels the story through these darker troughs: “He had gone along as he had always done. Throughout his life, he had done nothing, made no effort, showed no determination. His mood matched the fickle storm: he felt within minutes guilt and relief, shame and satisfaction. He fell asleep with these conflicting feelings, but when he awoke the following morning, they had merged into something less oppositional: the idea that he had survived.” Near the novel’s end, the trauma of Orbits’ life nears that deeper human mystery teased at throughout—that “bigger, more impersonal story to which [Orbits] was still connected.”
Heavy yet rewarding, Maharaj’s novel is a reminder that resilience takes many forms—and that most exceed our naming.