To read this extraordinary debut novel is to learn, or learn again, what excellence in any of the arts really means.
There's absolutely no doubt that Evening is the Whole Day is a masterly book, almost certainly the greatest work of fiction ever to come out of modern Malaysia. It's comprehensive, detailed, psychologically insightful and, by the end, deeply tragic. When, in the final scene, you see the assembled Indian-Malaysian family standing at the airport waving goodbye to their eldest daughter as she flies off to the US and Columbia University, what you are seeing is a loveless, broken, compromised family marooned in a country beset with ingrained rivalries and institutionalized injustices. Yet the long journey to that final hopelessness has been a riveting, and often very entertaining, read.
Appa Rajasekharan is the grandson of a Tamil-speaking Indian who migrated to Penang in 1899. By the 1980s Appa has become a rich lawyer, despite Malaysia's positive discrimination in favor of Malays over all other races (essentially the Chinese and the Indians). He unexpectedly marries an unimaginative girl, Amma, from next door and, despite an almost non-existent sex-life, they manage to produce three children. Appa's mother also lives with them, as does an impoverished servant-girl Chellam.
Skeletons in the cupboard are the stock in trade of the bourgeois family novel, and here the trauma focuses on the circumstances in which the grandmother dies, seemingly slipping and hitting her head one hot morning in the bathroom. Amma, Chellam and two of the children are all in the vicinity, and Preeta Samarasan plays the detective novel whodunit game with great aplomb. This, however, is merely the obligatory plot at the center of a novel that is in every way far fuller, far more complex, and far more sophisticated.
The book's title comes from a work of classic Tamil literature, the Kuruntokai - "evening is the whole day for those without their lovers." And lovelessness pervades this book - between Appa and Amma, between Amma and her daughters (she especially despises the intelligent one who goes off to study in the US), between the children themselves, among the other rich wives who mock Amma's lowly origins and current unhappy state, between Malaysia's different races, and, most of all, between the rich and the poor.
This is a huge novel, thrilling where necessary, but in reality with much bigger fish to fry. It's reminiscent of William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom perhaps), Louis de Berniere's Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Monique Truong's The Book of Salt, all magnificent achievements in their very different ways. But there's another great writer who repeatedly came to mind as I read this wide-ranging and deeply felt book, and that was George Eliot. Time may well show that Evening is the Whole Day is nothing less than modern Malaysia's Middlemarch.
This is a big claim, but there are many aspects of the novel that support it. Firstly, the social range is substantial. In addition, the racial mix of the country is unforgettably etched in, most importantly in the trial in which Appa acts as prosecutor of a poor Malay youth, Shamsuddin, for the rape and murder of a Chinese girl. The crime was in reality committed by the girl's uncle, who'd been extorting money from her father on behalf of a gangland boss, but Shamsuddin is set up and duly arrested.
"The jury and judge are on someone's secret payroll," thinks Appa as he opens the case for prosecution. "They agreed on Shamsuddin's guilt before today, before the trial began, before Shamsuddin was dangled by his feet before them, a rabbit out of some unseen magician's hat." But he proceeds regardless, and the boy is convicted and executed.
The details here are important. There's nothing in this book as simple-minded as privileged Malays, rich Chinese and victimized Indians. Injustice is everywhere prevalent, the author is implying, and the sickness that perhaps she sees as at the heart of the country is simply replicated in miniature in the family she chooses to focus on.
And this even-handedness and avoidance of stereotype applies to the characters as well. Amma, for instance, isn't some victim of class prejudice but a genuinely unpleasant woman, albeit possibly as a result of her abused upbringing and loveless marriage. Saints and sinners, in other words, are far from Preeta Samarasan's way of seeing things. This is both a profound, and a profoundly disturbing, novel.
The book proceeds in a strange fashion, moving backwards in time more often than it moves forwards. But, surprisingly, nothing in the way of readability is lost by this. And there are some stunning chapters that are, in several cases, mini-masterpieces in their own right.
One of these is the chapter describing Kuala Lumpur's anti-Chinese 1969 race riots, during which Amma gives birth to her first child. Another, even finer, is the study of Amma's lonely domestic existence, one of the finest studies of married desperation I've ever read, matched only by George Eliot's portrayal of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda.
It's easy to start wondering how much there is of personal reminiscence in a novel of this kind. Is Preeta Samarasan in some way the talented daughter who makes it away to Columbia? (She herself studied creative writing at the University of Michigan). If so, she's admirably self-effacing, because the girl in question isn't short of skeletons in her own cupboard either.
This book's central virtues are sympathy and understanding, combined with a tough-minded refusal to deny cruel truths. Yet it still manages to be witty, inventive and high-spirited, tossing brand names and popular songs into its rich evocation of provincial life in Malaysia's Ipoh. It succeeds superbly, and must surely be one of the finest novels published in English anywhere this year.
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