Loosely autobiographical, multigenerational first novel: exotic, sensual, sometimes sentimental, often searing, and ultimately universal in its depiction of an Indian family in Malaysia.
It’s 1931, and 14-year-old Lakshmi leaves Ceylon in an arranged marriage to the much older Ayah. When Ayah turns out to be not the rich businessman Lakshmi expected but a lowly clerk whose sweet, simple nature keeps him from professional advancement, bright and ambitious Lakshmi quickly takes charge of their financial and domestic affairs. By the time she’s twenty she has six children whom she feeds, clothes, and educates with iron-willed devotion. There are the twins, brilliant oldest son Lakshmnan and his twin sister Mohini, with her otherworldly beauty; pretty Anna; the adventurous outsider Sevenese; Jeyan, who is perhaps not as simple-minded as everyone assumes; and the homely, shy Lalita. The children all remember their early years as close to idyllic. Then WWII breaks out. When Mohini is raped and killed by the Japanese (whom Manicka, with a loss of perspective, portrays as unrelentingly monsterlike), the family begins to fall apart. Lakshmi has fits of rage that approach madness, while Lakshmnan’s early promise fizzles into dissolute gambling and an unhappy marriage (his wife is an almost cartoonish villain among otherwise highly nuanced characters). Except for the happily married Anna, life does not work out as Lakshmi planned for her children. Yet they all revere her, even Lakshmnan; and Ayah’s gentle love provides an emotional ballast that Lakshmi does not understand until too late. Lakshmnan’s daughter Dimple, whose beauty recalls Mohini, tape-records her aunts’ and uncles’ (as well as her parents’ and grandparents’) memories—and shifting perspectives—to preserve the family legacy for her own daughter. Toward the end Manicka falters, forcing the story of Dimple’s unhappy marriage into plot manipulations that feel forced, but, still, the story’s richness and careful accumulation of detail are reminiscent of a very different family chronicle, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks
Read this one slowly, to savor.