Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book Review - Rani Manika: The Japanese Lover

Rani Manika’s debut novel, The Rice Mother is one of my favourite books with its somewhat epic feel, fascinating characters, engrossing story and beautiful imagery. Her second book, Touching Earth, left me disappointed despite interesting characters, due to its depressing and somewhat cynical feel. I liked the first book enough though, to be hopeful about this third book from the author.

Like The Rice Mother, this book charts the journey of a young woman travelling to Malaysia to marry a man she does not know. Parvathi is a young Sri Lankan girl, raised in poverty and isolation by her father who hopes to marry her to a rich man. He manages this by showing a marriage broker a picture of a different girl and arranging her marriage to the older, immensely rich Kasu Marimuthu living in Malaysia. On seeing the dark, unsophisticated Parvathi, Kasu realises he has been tricked and threatens to send her straight back to India. Taking pity, he allows her to stay, and what follows are many years of loveless marriage and two children who threaten to bring nothing but further unhappiness.

World War Two breaks out as a miserable Kasu dies from alcoholism and the invading Japanese take over Kasu’s palatial mansion. Parvathi becomes a “comfort woman” for the Japanese General Hattori who now lives in her house, initially to protect her beautiful daughter, but when given the choice to escape, she chooses to stay with Hattori, finding she has fallen in love with him. With the end of the war, he is forced to leave with the promise he will return.

The blurb really captured my attention, but the book itself left me a little lost. The book tries to be epic in the way The Rice Mother manages and fails. It tries to explain the cosmic order of things – love, destiny, death, eternal, beings of light (or something like that, I lost track) but just sounds all new-agey and silly (well to me anyway). Manicka draws the characters in a way that you come to sympathise deeply for them and root for them despite their myriad flaws, and yet their unwillingness to fight for themselves and their love, to blindly accept fate, is frustrating.

The book takes us through the Indian experience in Malaysia over the course of almost a hundred years; through Colonial rule, World War Two, independence, civil unrest and finally the attempt of Indian-origin Malaysian’s to reassert their identity and self-respect. Given the scale, this could have been an epic novel, but falls short, dwelling too often on the sadness of the characters.

This is still an enjoyable and interesting novel, but the long passages discussing the purpose of life and death went on a bit and at times you felt like you were being lectured. Similarly, where the novel touches on social and political issues it can feel heavy-handed – for instance the discussion at the end about our how light-skin is preferred in some cultures and how we need to learn to love our brown-ness almost felt like one of those turn-to-camera moments you get in films where the actor suddenly starts talking to the audience.

Not in the league of The Rice Mother and depressing in parts, but still interesting with characters who I felt for deeply and a story that moves along at a reasonable pace.

Book Review: Rani Manicka – Touching Earth


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