Cereus Blooms at Night: A Novel
Set on a fictional Caribbean island in the town of Paradise, Cerus Blooms at Night unveils the mystery surrounding Mala Ramchandin and the tempestuous history of her family. At the heart of this bold and seductive novel is an alleged crime committed many years before the story opens. Mala is the aging, notoriously crazy woman suspected of murder who is delivered to the paradise Alms House after a judge finds her unfit to stand trial. When she arrives at her new home, frail and mute, she is placed in the tender care of Tyler, a vivacious male nurse, who becomes her unlikely confidant and the storyteller of Mala’s extraordinary life.
In luminous, sensual prose that “employs myth and magic reminiscent of Isabel Allende” (Out magazine), Mootoo joins diverse storytelling traditions to explore identity, gender, and violence in a celebration of our capacity to love despite cruelty and despair.
There is much to admire about Shani Mootoo’s first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night. In telling the tale of Mala Ramchandin, her sister, Asha, her childhood sweetheart Ambrose “Boyie” Mohanty, and the other inhabitants of the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, Mootoo has created a cast of remarkable characters capable of charming the reader. Narrated in part by Tyler, a young male nurse at a home for the elderly, Cereus begins with Mala’s admission to the alms house in Paradise—the main city on Lantanacamara—under a cloud of mystery. The old lady won’t speak and is suspected of a multitude of crimes, causing the head nurse of the home to keep her in restraints. Only Tyler is willing to care for her; it isn’t long before Tyler, an outcast in Paradise because of his sexual orientation, and Mala, a pariah for other reasons, develop an unusual friendship.
For the first half of the book, Mootoo moves easily between Tyler’s narrative and a third-person account of Mala’s life as a child. The chapters covering the adoption of Mala’s father, Chandin Ramchandin, by a white missionary and his wife and Chandin’s obsession with his foster sister, Lavinia, offer a telling perspective on race and colonialism; later chapters detailing Chandin’s descent into alcoholism, madness, and child abuse are occasionally overwrought, but the strong, child’s-eye point of view of young Mala keeps the novel grounded. The second half of Cereus abandons both Tyler and the omniscient narrator, choosing to focus, instead, on Otoh Mohanty, the son of Mala’s childhood friend, Boyie. Here Mootoo also introduces, for the first time, elements of the fantastic: a girl who “wills” herself to become a boy; a man who sleeps for weeks at a time, only waking one day each month; a mysterious, locked room that holds a horrifying secret. The result is pure melodrama wrapped up in lovely prose.
Even though the last half of the book seems too suddenly freighted towards the magical and improbable, and the happy ending is a trifle too contrived, Cereus Blooms at Night showcases Shani Mootoo’s impressive mastery of language. And in Mala Ramchandin, she has created a tough and tender heroine who commands the reader’s interest and sympathy from first page to last. —Alix Wilber