Beginnings and Endings

Reviewed by Ranbir K. Banwait

Carrie Snyder and Randy Boyagoda both intertwine a global geopolitics with the personal lives of their characters, reflecting on the material and social processes through which children become adults. What are the historical, political, and social contexts through which we become who we are, they ask? But while Snyder’s The Juliet Storiesis a contemplative narrative about the loss of family through displacement and illness, Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast is a more provocative story about traumatic beginnings that a boy furiously attempts to rewrite in his youth and in adulthood. Boyagoda’s Sam Kandy is an angry, hard and contemptuous man and he thus poses a thought-provoking contrast to Snyder’s Juliet Friesen

The Juliet Stories is, first and foremost, a novel about mourning and loss. Juliet’s family moves to Nicaragua during the 1984 Revolutionary war. Protesting the American connection to the political unrest in Nicaragua, the Friesens are plunged into chaos along with their three children. The story is made all the more gripping because it is seen through the eyes of a child who witnesses the events around her, without fully comprehending their significance. We see early signs of the Friesens’ crumbling marriage; the strain increases when Juliet’s younger brother Keith, is diagnosed with cancer and the family moves to Canada. Keith desperately struggles with cancer; his death disperses the family. Juliet grows to adulthood and has children of her own, but in spite of this attention to generational time and growth, the novel’s ending returns to the protagonist’s childhood and the ongoing mourning of its loss. The last scene closes in this cyclical sense, and is perhaps one of the most intriguing moments in the novel: “You spring out of the camera’s frame, splash into the waves, crouch. . . . You cover the keyboard and stand. You climb onto the window ledge . . . without listening for the cries of your children, you spring onto a shifting cloud.” In this final scene, Juliet rewrites an old memory, picturing her brothers standing beside her as someone takes a photograph. The narrator collapses both time and space as she takes a step out of the photograph’s frame. In turn, this act of imagination returns the narrator to the present, but the ending is also ambivalent for, in foregrounding the sense of displacement Juliet inherits from her childhood, the novel also reveals the multiple temporalities at work in shaping the narrator’s consciousness of the past and her ability to survive in the present.

In contrast, Boyagoda features a very different coming of age story, The young boy reinvents himself as Sam Kandy after his father abandons him at a Buddhist temple at the age of ten in 1909: “And so he was taken to robes . . . to begin a new life of desire and suffering, defeat and triumph, from which would come another, and another, and another, and . . . after one hundred years of steel and pride, fever and speed, another.” Beggar’s Feast begins in a small village in Ceylon, in pre-Independence Sri Lanka, and the narrative that follows makes it clear that Sam’s fate is closely tied to the village of his birth, and that the village is a microcosm refracting the larger stakes of empire. The one hundred years of Sam’s life are marked by reinvention, we are told, but he is as much a self-made man as he is a product of his time. Over the course of his long life, Kandy marries three times and fathers sixteen children, but what is perhaps most fascinating about him is that he is an altogether unsympathetic figure. As a child, he adapts quickly to street life, raising himself up in the world through calculating betrayals. The driving force in Sam’s life is to return to his childhood home with a splash, and to validate himself in front of the village that once disdained him.

Boyagoda reinterprets the rags to riches story with an abandoned boy who extends as little compassion and empathy to others as was dealt to him. A cold and unfeeling swindler and murderer, Sam kills two of his wives in fits of rage. In fact, his treatment of women and children as objects sits uneasily with the novel’s ending. In an interview, Boyagoda suggests that the ending of the novel is redemptive: Kandy dies contentedly in his third marriage surrounded by a house full of children. This lack of poetic justice in the novel is as compelling in its honesty as it is infuriating. Kandy lives his life with impunity, relentlessly taking advantage of existing social hierarchies. Although this is a candid portrayal of a character that emerges from the brutalities of the colonial order, the novel would have been enriched by a more careful treatment of the gendered regimes of power that allow Sam to benefit so immensely.

If Juliet’s story is about mourning the losses of childhood, then Sam’s life embodies the opposite; it is a furious rebuttal of all that childhood dealt him. This distinction importantly suggests the need to consider the novels in their proper postcolonial contexts; Juliet’s travels from the U.S. to Nicaragua to Canada in the final decades of the twentieth century, and Kandy’s hundred-year personal history of the twentieth century, including his flights from Ceylon to Australia to Singapore and eventual return to Sri Lanka. Reading these novels together is rewarding because each reveals how these subjects become who they are through post/colonial trajectories of trauma, loss, mourning and anger.

This review “Beginnings and Endings” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 130-31.

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