Friday, 13 February 2015

Review: If the Moon Smiled, by Chandani Lokuge

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.

-        Sylvia Plath, The Rival

Born in Sri Lanka, and though now in Australia, Manthri’s never quite left it. Her watercolour childhood crumbles away under her culture’s idea of womanhood. In Australia, with her family, her patriarchal husband, and thoroughly Western children, her life peels away. She finds herself trapped in land that does not support her culture, and trapped in a culture that does not care for her happiness. If she loves her husband, that love sleeps below layers of bondage and despair. She loves her children, but she knows, ‘With my love of [them] I built a husk around me. And lay secure in its warmth. But they skin the husk as it dries, layer by layer.’ 
Chandani Lokuge’s first novel certainly despairs at life. While a family drama, it focusses on the narrator, examining how family events affect her, more than the events themselves. Lokuge paints Manthri’s psychological isolation, her desire for love, her vulnerability and her weakness. Among friends, and even family, a tantalisingly narrow, but impassable, chasm opens between her and other human beings. She comes from a culture which preaches ‘detachment,’ but she can neither attach herself to anyone or anything, nor can she detach completely, freeing herself of the desire, and resultant despair, of connection.

That characters come off as stereotypes is either a fault of the writing or a symptom of the narrator’s isolation, or both. We have Mahendra, the dictatorial and divorced patriarch, more concerned with caste, race, religion and respectability than happiness. He sees living in Australia as a necessary evil, suffered for the sake of employment and, eventually, to get away from the troubles in Sri Lanka. He adheres to his culture’s dictates and would have his family do the same, whether they acquiesce, as does Manthri, or resist, as do his children. Her children, Devake and Nelum, explore two bittersweet tragedies of parenting. Devake, her layabout son, will never get into medical school, despite his father’s insistence. He won’t accomplish much of anything. But because of that Manthri can feel like a mother to him, feeling the underlying love that comes from a weak child seeking support. Nelum, her ambitious daughter, must, in order to live for herself, exile herself from the family. Her father would not have her become a doctor, rather he would marry her off immediately so she becomes a respectable wife and mother. Manthri, with understandable resentment, must accept that her daughter can only attain happiness away from her.

I could call these characters lazily detailed clichés*, but whether this is the fault of Lokuge or Manthri is for debate. Manthri, held prisoner within herself, tries and fails to connect with others, as such all she has are broad stroke images of them: clichés. Or perhaps Lokuge justifies her own clichés by making them Manthri’s**.

Lokuge’s writing flows like lyrics. Only in the novel’s early chapters does her language border on the over-flowered, but such floweriness is suitable for Manthri’s state of mind. She looks back on childhood, that time when ignorance painted the world in expressionist strokes, a life sans despair and even hope, an eternal present with no thought of future. A lost arcadia amplified by nostalgia contrasting a harsh present.

At around 50,000 words the book reads quickly and easily. It’s not plot heavy. Scenic routes run between point A and B, and B and C, making it simple to avoid getting lost on the course. But do not let its ease of access fool you. Though light, it explores heavy themes, themes of isolation, despair, and cultural bondage among others. Lokuge’s character’s may not pop off the page, but the one character whose experience matters, Manthri, is explored fully and effectively.      

*There is the argument that stereotypes exist for a reason; there are living people who adhere to them. But, I would say, in fiction any character sufficiently examined defies categorisation.

**I am cruel. Lokuge’s characters are not aggressively stereotypical, but they do play to type. 

1 comment:

  1. Women stand in an award position as an immigrant. She bounds to her native culture as her motherland, but for the most of time, its tradition (as most cultures’ tradition does), confronts her identity as a free spirit, or to persuade her happiness freely. Women are silenced in traditional culture (generally), and then her unique identity as a foreigner guarantees her isolation. If we investigates culture symbolism, where should feminist originate? When so many female writers becomes the symbols of national prides, who does reflect how much suffering they have gone through under the ‘glorious’ culture back then?
    When feminism values come out, it is about women, about men, about human cultures, and it does not belong either to western or eastern cultures, but humans, you and me. In nearly all the cultures, how should women, LGBTIQ, stand in their original culture back to their own society? They know they will have a chance of freedom and happiness in a western country. Therefore, they must stand in the middle, with a past as a memory, and a future unborn.
    However, like Charlotte Bronte, as Virginia Woolf said, who focus on “I love, I hate, I suffer”, that this “I” becomes the central of books, and when you finish it, you can only see one character, the narrator as a whole (or round), but the rest is full of biases, prejudices, love and hate, covered layer and layer upon it, and try to clear the dust is very tiresome for the reader. These characters all become symbols, therefore fall into the necessity of not being a human. They all represent a certain aspect, that Manthri in reflecting herself, she narrators everything in such a manner, that her husband becomes the symbol of the patriarchal, her son and her daughter are the suffers as she is under such environment, that physically she is in Australia, but within the family, she is back to Sri Lanka, and spiritually she runs back to her childhood. Such narrator must be melancholy, depressing…
    It is certainly very hard, especially for women, to write as an ‘international writer’ not about “I suffer, I love, I hate”, and you are expected to produce such stories, or such biographical story is so painful, so much, that is needed to be shared, written down. However, I really wish to see a male character who takes a feminist stand upon his own culture identity as an immigrant, or LGBTIQ characters. I have not read the book, but generally, these kind of books, whose memory and emotions ‘pollute’ or ‘interfere’ the ‘reality’ or ‘authenticity’ of other characters or events or judgments, are more than other books, require you to reread to possible get the full tastes of her emotion (but I have not read the book, and I shall stop now).