- Diana Fitzgerald Bryden (Author)
No Place Strange. Key Porter Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Shani Mootoo (Author)
Valmiki's Daughter. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Carolyne Van Der Meer
Shani Mootoo’s Valmiki’s Daughter is set in modern Trinidad, in the crime-rife city of San Fernando. The class system is alive and well: the right measure of Indian blood and skin tone holds great importance here. Too Caribbean is negative, as is skin too dark and houses too far down the hillside. Women’s education is most respected (by men) when it is undertaken outside the university: too much education is unfeminine. Fit female bodies are poorly viewed among the upper classes. And homosexuality is best hidden.
As such, the stage is set in Valmiki’s Daughter. Valmiki, a wealthy, well-respected doctor in San Fernando, lives with his wife Devika and two daughters Viveka and Vashti in the upscale hilltop suburb of Luminada Heights. Very quickly, we learn that Valmiki not only has repeated affairs with foreign woman—in other words, not the dark-skinned women of Indian descent from his own class, but the ill-respected mostly white foreigners who consult him in his medical practice. His secretary Zoraida knows of all of his liaisons and protects him in his quest for discretion—even helps foster this odd element of his practice. We also learn that Devika rarely addresses this aspect of Valmiki’s character, is aware of his behaviour, and while she does not condone it—even somehow worships his indisputable virility—she will not unsettle her own charmed life, which wants for nothing materially.
We also discover quickly that though he presents an image of virility in his seemingly insatiable desire for female flesh, Valmiki’s real carnal desire is for men. Marrying Devika was a way to save him from the shame of pursuing his true nature, which would have been shunned in traditional Trinidadian society. Nevertheless, interspersed with his pursuit of women is a regular connection with Saul, a man of a much lower social class than Valmiki, who is married to a woman who knows of and accepts his homosexual nature—and who, like Devika, knows on which side her proverbial bread is buttered.
Of course this stage, set as it is, leads to the obvious question: so what is it about Valmiki’s daughter? Early on, we also discover that Viveka causes great tension in the family because of her interest in sports, her unfeminine tomboy-like nature, her pursuit of a university degree—and ultimately, her awakening interest in women. Valmiki has a special connection with Viveka, allows her to manipulate him; he inherently understands that their natures are one and the same. And Devika, who believes that a mother knows everything about her child by mere “feel” or intuition, instinctively knows that Viveka is like her father.
Mootoo’s novel is one of powerful tensions that push and pull with an almost sexual rhythm. There is a constant play of contradictions: Devika’s disgust with Valmiki’s never-ending ways, yet her desire to be taken by him; Valmiki’s incessant need for female validation pitted against his primordial hunger for male companionship and sexual play; and Viveka’s realization that seeking a romantic connection with a male would be socially correct but contradicts her awakening need for female completion. Mootoo is skilled at chafing these imbalances, one against the other, and finding resolution, though that resolution continually hangs on the precipice of disaster. My only complaint about this novel is Mootoo’s insistence on beginning each section of the novel (there are four parts and an epilogue) with a geographical journey that addresses the reader as “you” and takes her on a guided tour of San Fernando and all other places significant to the story. This is a tedious change in tempo that risks losing the reader at each section’s outset.
Diana Fitzgerald Bryden’s No Place Strange explores the politics of place more probingly than the politics of bodies, though it does touch on this theme as well. And while Valmiki’s Daughter held us captive in a continuous wave of foreboding, No Place Strange dangles us in the arenas of terrorism and murder. Bryden’s complex novel plays out the connections of four people to legendary Palestinian terrorist Rafa Ahmed—legendary because of her beauty, her coldness—and because of her sex.
Lydia, a young Jewish Canadian woman, knows of her journalist father’s love affair with Rafa from an early age. His untimely death is surely the result of his relationship with her—which Lydia must somehow reconcile. She escapes from her reality by travelling to Europe, and meets a young Lebanese man, Farid, with whom she falls crazily in love— though circumstances separate them before she can tell him she is pregnant with his child. What she doesn’t know is that Farid is the son of Mariam, a well-respected scholar under whom Rafa once studied. Lydia and Farid’s unexpected separation in part arises from the sudden visit of Mouna, Farid’s cousin, who was also raised by Mariam. The intensity of their kinship destabilizes the budding romance between Lydia and Farid, and ultimately leads to Lydia to take a brief trip from their meeting ground in Greece. But that trip severs their bond for years to come.
In short order, Mouna, a political activist in her own right who is obsessed with Rafa, discovers that Lydia is the daughter of the white journalist whose death might have been at Rafa’s hand—a possible sacrifice for Rafa’s cause. Her leanings—both sexual (though unrealized) and political—for Rafa Ahmed, prevent Mouna from understanding Lydia’s pain at having lost her father. And they complicate her sympathy for the relationship between Farid and Lydia.
Bryden’s novel follows the journeys both Lydia and Mouna make: Lydia’s quest for the truth of her father’s relationship with Rafa; Mouna’s for the role the man really played in Arab-Israeli relations. Their tense relationship, explored briefly in the framework of Lydia’s short-lived love affair with Farid, finds resolution when she travels to Montreal to attend a conference where Rafa is scheduled to speak. Mouna anticipates this trip, fully understanding that Lydia will want to confront Rafa in her quest for answers. She wants answers too. When they do connect in Montreal, craftily orchestrated by Mouna, they are surprised, though they dance around one another skittishly, to find that they like each other. And the ultimate re for Lydia and her young boy, Felix with Farid, is both moving and satisfying for the reader.
Bryden’s skill, in this, her first novel, is of a seasoned writer. The author of two books of poetry and of numerous published short fiction and non-fiction selections, she seems an amateur beside the heavy-weight Mootoo, whose Cereus Blooms at Night was a finalist for the Giller Prize among others. Yet that couldn’t be farther from the truth. She is good company for the acclaimed Mootoo, and No Place Strange is strong evidence.
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MLA: Van Der Meer, Carolyne. Travelling Bodies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 172 - 174)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.