Friday, December 2, 2011

Review | The Japanese Lover by Rani Manicka

I love sagas. There is nothing better than watching a young pretty girl blossom into an obnoxious teenager, mature into a confused single twenty-year-old and age gracefully into a corporate tycoon all in the space of a weekend. You guessed it - every Daniel Steele heroine ever written. This particular tale starts off in a promising albeit strange manner. We meet an old woman living in the storeroom of her daughters house in Kuala Lumpur when someone asks her to record her life story and so Parvati is born into a poor Sri Lankan family. On eve of her birth a grim prophesy is told of a doomed marriage to an extremely wealthy man. To avert this fate she bathes a golden serpent in milk every day and is locked in the shed behind her house by her father until the wealthy man from the country of Malaya comes knocking at her door.

Here the story takes a more predictable turn as she travels to the distant land and embarks on a difficult journey to fit into Kasu Marimuthu's life, my favorite character in the novel, and play with the strange cards she has been dealt. Namely a witch doctor cook and an altogether depressing disposition. You have to give it to Rani Manicka in that it takes guts to create a character this lacking in well, character. There is absolutely nothing extraordinary about her. She is tone deaf, has no interest in art and comes across as any ordinary village girl should. The essence of the story from then on out is her entry into Malaya social scene- a Princess Diaries meets My Fair lady meets Beauty and the Beast that is really quite enjoyable until you find the story lacking any direction after the predictable transformation takes place. You can sense the author's conundrum as she  as she begins to throw in a possible love affair, mysticism and family drama into the mix unable to fuse each story thread together in a believable manner. At one end she is cursed with a utterly terrible children and on the other has to deal with a  constant undercurrent of superstition that somehow never comes together. Once the Japanese general enters, he brings with him a much needed outlet for releasing tension that Manicka builds up quite nicely but is unable to execute. While Parvati's sudden sexual awakening could have been more fully explored, I do love Manicka's lovely way with erotica. A particular scene with Parvati in the ocean was almost orgasmic as are her surreal moments as a Geisha. The book flap talks about a how Parvati had to choose the man who was her sworn enemy as her lover, something I thought should have taken more than the one paragraph that it happened in. The mysticism and supernatural elements continue to linger until it culminates in some sort of serpent frenzy that completely goes over my head and over Parvati's as well.

This could have been an amazing book if Manicka had made it longer and given it that space to develop as it deserved. I would have loved to know more about the history of the time and the broader Malay landscape. I really did want to like Parvati but felt like I was never given the chance between the magic realism and Japanese invasion. The writing is always fluid and you get a lovely sense of this beautiful house by the beach and the jungles near by. The humour of the mami's afforded me the occasional laugh and her matter of fact third person view point keeps us involved even us story threads confuse us. Perhaps the most interesting parts were the authors take on India and Indians. Manicka when asked about this said; "For me, this is a message to Indians in this country because they really do have a self-esteem problems and they deny it whenever I speak about it. It is so ingrained in them. With this book, I am saying it is okay if you are dark skinned."

I am never a fan of novels that are overtly preachy but part of me does like the fact that a main theme of this book is that dramatic lives can happen to even the most ordinary people.

Verdict: Worth a read on a rainy afternoon. Pass it around your girlfriends, especially the ones that live with mami's.
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