Making heavy weather of family life

Preeta Samarasan's debut novel puts Samanth Subramanian in a tropical state of mind.

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
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Evening is the Whole Day
Preeta Samarasan
Fourth Estate

A novel and its prose can sometimes channel the climate of its setting, as if the page were a porous membrane through which temperature and humidity are allowed to pass. My prevailing memory of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music is largely the air of rheumatic dampness that seemed to seep up from its passages on London. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient radiated the heat of Africa and of a burning love through its incandescent prose. To read Preeta Samarasan's Evening is the Whole Day is to live briefly like a resident of the tropics, stifled and sapped by her prose as if it were the lush, sticky warmth that precedes the day's rain.

The tropical location here is Malaysia, where Samarasan lived until she moved to the United States as a teenager. In Ipoh, in the Big House, live the family of the lawyer Rajasekharan - his wife Vasanthi, his old mother, his two daughters Uma and Aasha, his son Suresh and an assortment of servants. One of those servants is Chellam, hired solely to tend to Rajasekharan's mother. At the beginning of the book, Chellam has just left the Big House, under thunderclouds of drama and ambiguity. Under less mysterious circumstances, Uma has also left, to pursue the Columbia University education she has yearned for. Neither Uma nor Chellam, we sense, is likely to return.

Rajasekharan's father, like many other Tamil immigrants in Malaysia, started at the foot of the social ladder, as a clerk who had grander dreams for his son. Only in marriage would Rajasekharan fail his father. As an illustrious barrister, with his pick of women who were his equals, he chose to woo Vasanthi next door. (Vasanthi's father, upon hearing the news, would tell her: "Not bad… For an idiot you haven't done too badly for yourself.") Into this marriage, burdened forever with its inequalities, have come Uma, star pupil, incurable romantic, and aspiring actress; the stolid Suresh, with his matter-of-fact pronouncements; and more recently Aasha, observer of, and sometimes the cause behind, the seismic shifts around her.

Beginning at the end, Evening is the Whole Day works backwards, leapfrogging in time to select slices of the past that can throw some illumination on the mysteries of today. Why was Uma wreathed in unhappiness as she departed? Why is Chellam leaving? Why is Rajasekharan's brother, the twinkle-toed Uncle Ballroom, suddenly persona non grata in the Big House? Why does the spirit of the grandmother - Paati - seem to persist, as if to resolve unfinished business? As Evening is the Whole Day peels apart the Rajasekharan family, its secrets, and the answers to these questions, trickle out.

As it turns out, these answers are not new to fiction, or even to recent fiction, so Samarasan's tunnelling technique begins to feel like a bit of a cheat. John Updike recently described a novel whose author "spices up the narrative by making parts of it, while we watch, vanish". But rather than eliding details of the present, Samarasan doles out the past with a canny miserliness, and each section exists only to bring her worn revelations marginally closer.

This technique shapes Evening is the Whole Day in another way. As Samarasan begins, plumb in the middle of her action, and then harks back constantly to explicate, she overworks her language in her effort to keep us with her. Like an overripe fruit, her early prose remains only one step short of overwhelming. There are similes everywhere, every action must be adverbed, everything must be described or catalogued or doubly emphasised.

When Rajasekharan's father buys a chandelier, we are told, "he stayed up well past his usual bedtime to assemble the chandelier by the light of a kerosine lamp, frowning and muttering at the poorly translated directions, struggling, lipchewing, jawgrinding, squinting at the diagrams, until finally, at one minute to midnight, he dragged Paati from her bed in breathless triumph". Even the act of assembling a chandelier is not allowed to breathe under this heavy blanket of words.

Fortunately, Samarasan calms down as her narrative picks up. Her characters fill out and begin to speak a little more for themselves, and they demand from us genuine sympathies and responses. Their colloquial Malay-Tamil-inflected English, to anyone familiar with those languages, is particularly, deliciously authentic. Most of all, Samarasan is skilled at putting us inside the heads of her characters, making us witnesses to their processes of thought, logic and emotion.

Samarasan's literary debts are evident. There is, in Aasha, something of Ian McEwan's Briony Tallis, who in Atonement tells a lie that convinces even herself and changes many lives irreparably. There are also flashes of Scout, the six-year-old girl who serves, as Aasha does here, as our prism into the world of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

But in its texture, in its route, and in its evocation of another tropical land, Evening is the Whole Day resembles nothing so much as Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.

Set in Kerala, Roy's Booker-winning novel is as political as it is intimate. As Samarasan has done, Roy picked apart the cloth of a single family, to reveal between the threads a mess of intrigue and deception. Households seem to ferment in the heat and the humidity, propriety breaks down, minds addle, and the fetid smell of sin begins to escape to the outside world. In turn, the outside world - of casteism, of Kerala's Communist politics, of the mores of Syrian Christians - presses against the walls of Roy's households.

Unlike Roy, Samarasan cannot wed her politics as successfully to her tale. She flirts first with Rajasekharan's ministerial ambitions in a young Malaysia, then with his participation in a notorious trial that again recalls Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and then with the exotic machinations of an idiot savant. But they add very little to her story's fabric. Every one of these dalliances feels forced, like a half-hearted excursion out of the Big House, when we're really waiting just to get back there. Home is where the heat is.

Samanth Subramanian, a New Delhi-based journalist, has written for Mint, The Hindu, The New Republic, and the Far Eastern Economic Review.