By Ronald Cummings
Valmiki’s Daughter, by Shani Mootoo
House of Anansi, ISBN 978- 0-88784-220-7, 352 pp
Valmiki’s Daughter is Shani Mootoo’s third novel. It follows her widely acclaimed debut novel Cereus Blooms at Night (1996) and the somewhat less well known He Drown She in the Sea (2005). But Valmiki’s Daughter is markedly different in texture. It has none of the allegorical touches, magical realism, or gothic sensibility which typify Mootoo’s previous novels, and thus may disappoint readers who come to its pages expecting a similar kind of story and narrative voice. Instead, this book offers an intense engagement with what I would describe as the politics of the everyday.
Set in contemporary Trinidad, Valmiki’s Daughter narrates the story of the Krishnus, a well-to-do middle-class family living in the San Fernando suburb of Luminada Heights. It focuses most closely on Valmiki Krishnu, a successful medical doctor and the patriarch of the family, and his daughter Viveka, a literature student at university in Trinidad. The stories of Valmiki and Viveka parallel each other in striking ways. As the narrative unfolds we learn they both have secrets that threaten the respectability of the family, and are called on at integral moments in their lives to make key decisions regarding marriage, family, and sexuality.
Mootoo continues her exploration of areas of Caribbean life less traversed in the Caribbean literary landscape. Her exploration of the politics of sexuality in Cereus Bloom at Night was acclaimed as a unique, sensitive, and evocative addition to the range of Caribbean stories and voices. In Valmiki’s Daughter, Mootoo’s continued engagement with issues of gender and sexuality is keenly refracted through the lens of class and ethnicity. Her focus on middle-class lives is a particularly interesting choice. Almost fifty years after George Lamming observed in 1960 that “one of the most popular complaints made by West Indians against their novelists is the absence of novels about the West Indian middle class,” there are still relatively few of these narratives. Most Caribbean novels choose to focus on the rural and urban folk. Mootoo departs from this trend, and offers in Valmiki’s Daughter an insightful exploration of the ways in which codes of middle-class respectability function to shape these lives.
Mootoo’s talent for writing vivid and redolent landscapes is one of the hallmarks of her work. In Valmiki’s Daughter she demonstrates impressive talent in the writing of very different and distinct geo-cultural scapes. These range from the bustling intersection of Chancery Lane, which opens the novel, to the detailed portrait of Luminada Heights and the journey east to the village of Rio Claro. There is rich detail to be enjoyed here. The novel is also invested in marking the class, cultural, as well as physical variations of these spaces. The narrator tells us:
to know one corner alone is not at all to know a place that is so miraculously varied geographically, environmentally, socially, linguistically. It sounds like a hodge-podge of a place, but it’s more of a well seasoned, long simmering stew.
The narrator as guide offers the “tourist let down from the sky, blindfolded in the middle of a weekday,” vivid scenes and accounts of life in urban, suburban, and rural Trinidad. The reader is quickly aware that this is not a benign tourist tour. We are not invited to see only the “sea of green — the fronds of palm and coconut trees mixed with sampan, flamboyant, Pride of Barbados, mango trees,” but also the urban blight: the “row of beggars sitting on their haunches on the sidewalk with arms outstretched.” The music of the steel-pan orchestra is drowned by the cacophony of human cries of despair from the beggars as well as those who inhabit the hospital wards, the chorus of taxi horns, and the hawking of the nut sellers. Scenes of beaches are traded for a focus on the suburbs which stretch beyond these beaches, and the narratives of the lives of their inhabitants.
The richness of detail evident in the description of these landscapes is also replicated in other elements of the book. The result is that small moments become weighted with fundamental significance. The act of getting dressed and staring in the mirror, for instance, becomes a meditation on the politics of identity and the pressures of social orthodoxy. These moments produce some fine reflective passages, but also contribute to the discernibly slow and often tedious pace of the novel. In some instances, Mootoo indulges her artist’s eye, leading to an excess of description. Characters like Merle Bedi, who we meet only once in the narrative, are introduced in detail disproportionate to their roles in the narrative. Such details are at once one of the most sumptuous and one of the most frustrating aspects of this book.
Mootoo’s intergenerational Krishnu family saga is an intricately woven and thoughtfully constructed book. Its message and technique are consistent and considered throughout. Through its rendering of multiple spaces of interaction between the internal, private, and public lives of its characters, the reader is forced to confront the many ways and instances in which social obligations and expectations, and in particular expectations regarding gender and sexuality, constrain them. Its ideological and affective conclusion is not dramatic, but is detailed and painstakingly developed. The epiphany is subtle but decisive and poignant.
Ronald Cummings is a Jamaican PhD student in the School of English at the University of Leeds. His work focuses on queer Caribbean literature and culture, and discourses of marronage.