Sun, Jan 16, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Cliches and worse in a Rani Manicka novel about Bali

With dull, caricatured people and situations, `Touching Earth' doesn't make for compelling reading

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Touching Earth
By Rani Manicka
Scepter, 433 pages
[UK, paperback]

This is a slightly better book than it seems at first sight, but is nonetheless far less good than some of its early sections might lead you to believe.

When I began reading Touching Earth, I thought it was an oriental genre novel, full of luxuriant images of the gorgeous and exotic East. The scene was Bali and both human life and nature appeared to be characterized by abundance, a characteristic that was reflected in an opulent prose style. There were sorcerers, long fingernails, fruits of every description, jeweled combs, moonlit nights and an abundance of coconut oil.

I know what this is all about, I thought. This writer, though no doubt well aware that in many literary circles irony, understatement and a critical stance are highly valued, believes that she, by contrast, will be lush, indulgent, and implicitly critical of the West for lacking these qualities. You may have lost the feeling for these things, I imagined she was saying, but Asians are happily still in touch with them. And by writing like this, I'll show you what you're missing.

Then came the shock. The first chapter dealt with a Balinese girl called Nutan who, with her twin sister Zeenat, is put on a plane for London by their father. After leaving their exotic paradise island, they're launched into jobs waitressing in a bleak London restaurant run by a distant relation.

From the descriptions of this grim capital city in winter -- its inhabitants visiting cold, gloomy temples to worship their god with guilty, downcast eyes, children as young as 13 roaming the streets and swearing as they drink cider from plastic bottles -- I should have known something slightly different from what I'd expected was in store.

But I continued assuming that the main angle was the decadent West contrasted with the vibrant East. The author, I took for granted, still valued, above all else, the sensibility of some happy-go-lucky Asian, awash in the pleasures of the senses while at the same time maintaining a natural dignity thanks to a morally responsible family life.

My eyes were opened, however, when I got to a chapter narrated by a girl, Elisabeth, from the west of Ireland. Earlier there had been chapters narrated by a couple of Sicilians, Riccardo (Ricky) and Francesca. These had certainly summoned up a different world from Bali, but even so, I remained unaware of what the author was up to.

The chapter on the Irish west took me aback more than a little -- it summoned up an Irish world I felt that, in a small way, I knew and understood. All these early narratives look back at their speakers' childhoods before following them to the UK and London.

What I hadn't appreciated was the author's command of different casts of mind, and with them tones of voice. These chapters, I now saw, were strongly differentiated. And the Balinese exoticism was not Rani Manicka's own take on the world, but just one of many personas she felt able to inhabit.

Next came the mini-story of an East African Indian youth, Anis, living with his family in London following their expulsion from Kenya in the 1960s. One day he cracks the secret code on his father's computer and reads his sex diary -- crammed full of gay encounters. Anis' homophobia at this point is extremely pronounced. Was this the author's attitude too? I read on, totally unsure now what to expect.

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