The Numbers Tell a Story

  • Derek Mascarenhas
    Coconut Dreams. Book*hug (purchase at
  • Bindu Suresh
    26 Knots. Invisible Publishing (purchase at

Although numbers appear to be at the forefront of Derek Mascarenhas’ Coconut Dreams and Bindu Suresh’s 26 Knots, the authors skillfully use these numbers to organize their narratives. Memory connects the characters’ pasts to the present and projects their hopes for the future. As the character Araceli realizes in 26 Knots, “the past and the future were equally heavy burdens that limited the present to a sliver, a small crack in the doorway. She was the path between two destinations, a body to lie and stretch across like the wild terrain between cities, between homes.”

In Coconut Dreams, the table of contents lists years from 1946 to 2006. This collection of linked short stories is mostly set between 1994 and 2000. Its main characters Aiden and Ally, whose parents emigrated from Goa, grow up in Burlington during their school years. Only two stories deviate from this predominant setting: “When the Good Shines a Little Brighter” includes an aunt/babysitter recalling her African safari honeymoon, and in “Two Islands” Aiden and Ally’s mother, Clara, meets a British tourist, Thomas, who visits Goa and the Andaman Islands. The penultimate story, “Hold It like a Butterfly,” is Ally’s story; it spans a ten-year period starting in 1996 in Burlington and ending in 2006 in Toronto. This suburban coming-of-age collection—told in both third- and first-person points of view—begins and ends, however, with stories set in Goa. The first story, although beginning in 1946, contains events set mostly in 1958. We learn about the birth of Felix—Aiden and Ally’s father—in Goa. We also meet Felix and Clara as childhood friends before their move to Canada as a married couple. The final story describes Aiden’s “return” to Goa as an adult and university dropout. The story and collection end with the image of Aiden’s old uncle running alongside the train as it pulls out of the station, and bidding farewell to his nephew while Aiden muses: “[w]hatever I’d come here to find. What I thought I’d been missing. Running alongside me.” His heritage and history, together with his childhood experiences and adolescence, come together in this adult moment of nostalgia, identity formation, and hope. Mascarenhas’ writing is direct, descriptive, accessible, and alluring, and he allows his readers to easily walk alongside his characters on their journeys towards self-discovery.

In contrast, 26 Knots, Suresh’s debut book—set mostly in Montreal and minimally in Cuba and other parts of North America—deliberately shuns prosaic narrative storytelling for a more poetic, episodic style that leaves literal and narrative gaps in the story expressed through spaces on the pages between chapters and even within chapters. The numeric title corresponds to the twenty-six chapters that follow the love stories of Araceli, Adrien, Pénélope, and Gabriel, which are told from a third-person point of view. The knots in these main characters’ relationships with each other become obstacles as well as remembrances—like knots in a handkerchief. Adrien “discover[s] . . . that love, when skipped over, rests as a pebble lodged in one’s memory.” The book opens with a comment on Araceli and Adrien’s relationship: “[y]ears later, he would reach for her hand as she walked . . . By then she will have drawn the nectar from every memory, dried the fallen petals with constant thought.” Memory in this story is all-consuming and tragically loaded. The story ends with Pénélope and Gabriel’s relationship: “Pénélope felt a note of triumph: One day, Gabriel, you will look up from your work and suddenly remember me.” Suresh’s focus on her characters’ realistic fixations, loaded choices, impulsive actions, and inner turmoil relentlessly draws the reader into the stories in spite of the gaps in their narratives and the spaces on the pages, which also act as poignant pauses. In the midst of despairing relationships, she also presents hope in the form of Araceli and Adrien’s restored relationship and Adrien’s care for a child, Chloe, who is not his own biologically.

Although set in disparate locations, Coconut Dreams and 26 Knots showcase their Canadian content through a strong sense of home (Burlington and Montreal, respectively) and humanity (diverse in culture, language, and gender). Both works put their Canadian characters and landscapes at the forefront in spite of their reliance on numbers for narrative order.

This review “The Numbers Tell a Story” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jul. 2020. Web.

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