Friday, 24 June 2016

Book Review: The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

For most people starting a family is the natural thing to do once we are grown up. It’s also natural to have romantic ideas about it because we all crave for happiness. Romance novels and family sagas aren’t so popular without reason! The much cherished ideal today is to enter a love marriage “until death may part you”, but only few of us are aware that the concept is a somewhat recent invention of western society. Until not so long ago arranged marriages were rather the rule than the exception here like in other cultures. The story of The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka begins in 1930 with a Ceylonese teenager being married off to a much older, but supposedly wealthy Tamil man living in Malaya. She finds her husband horrible, and yet makes the best of the situation and becomes the strong matriarch of a big family often shaken by fate.

Rani Manicka was born in Malaysia in 1964. She holds an economics degree from the University of Malaysia and made her debut as a novelist in 2002 with award-winning The Rice Mother. To date she published three more novels, namely Touching Earth (2005), The Japanese Lover (2009), and Black Jack (2013). Rani Manicka lives with her Italian husband in the United Kingdom and Malaysia.

Fourteen-year-old Lakshmi from Ceylon doesn’t start right away as The Rice Mother, the Giver of Life from Balinese legend, when her well-meaning mother marries her off in 1930 to a Tamil widower in his late thirties living in Malaya because according to the matchmaker (his cousin) he is a wealthy man. When Lakshmi sees her husband Ayah for the first time during the wedding ceremony, she is disappointed even disgusted because he is a dark-skinned and slow giant who has nothing at all in common with the man she dreamt of.
“He looked up. He had small black eyes. I caught the small black beads in my bold gaze. In them I found an irritating expression of proud possession. I stared unblinking at him. … Suddenly I felt a shift in my new husband’s eyes. Surprise swallowed proud possession. He dropped his eyes. How strange. I had defeated the ugly beast. … I felt my unexpected triumph rush through my body like a fever.”
Upon their arrival in the small town of Kuantan in Malaya another disappointment awaits her because Ayah isn’t rich after all. He is only a petty clerk in a dead-end job without hope for promotion because he fails every office exam. Moreover, he has slipped into debt because he has no head for finances, but as soon as Lakshmi finds out she takes charge of all money matters. Soon she gets pregnant and to her great relief she gives birth to fair-skinned twins, the boy Lakshmnan and the green-eyed girl Mohini.
“My son was everything I could have hoped for. A gift from the gods. All my prayers answered in fine black ringlets of hair and a perfectly formed hearty yell to proclaim his health – but it was really my daughter that I stared at in something amounting to disbelief. I should tell you straightaway how incredibly special she was. For she was fair beyond anything I could have imagined.”
Until 1935 four more children follow, two girls and two boys. Thanks to Lakshmi’s clever management the siblings have a happy childhood in the mixed neighbourhood of Chinese Taoists, Tamil Hindus and Malay Muslims until World War II reaches the country in December 1941. For almost three years the family hides beautiful Mohini from the soldiers of the Japanese occupation forces who like to take away innocent girls “to have some fun with them”. Japan has already surrendered when Mohini falls into the hands of the Japanese after all and dies in captivity. From then on the shadow of her death haunts the family members, notably her close lookalikes Dimple (Lakshmnan’s daughter) and her daughter Nisha who learns her family’s history only after the death of her father in 2001.

There is more than just one first-person narrator breathing life into the story of The Rice Mother and the three generations sprung from her. In turns everyone who can add a piece to the jigsaw puzzle of family history has a say. On a blog a reviewer wrote that the characters lacked psychological depth and that the read therefore was a rather disappointing experience, especially knowing that the novel was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2003, South East Asia and South Pacific Region. I agree that the author shows only certain aspects of her characters, but I believe that this is on purpose. Although it becomes clear only after the first half of the novel, the book is the “dream trail” that fifteen-year-old Dimple collects in order to prevent the stories of her ancestors and family history from falling into oblivion. And since the idea is that each member of the family tells her or his part of the story in her or his own words… would you strip your soul to the skin to eternalise yourself in the memory of the children of your children with all the odd edges of your personality? I doubt it. So why should Lakshmi and the others? For the rest, the author skilfully embedded the plot in the historical and sociological background of the characters, most importantly Japanese Occupation and a spiritual world full of magic, omens and clairvoyant dreams. The language is modern and unpretentious with some very beautiful images.

I experienced The Rice Mother by Rani Manicka as an interesting and enjoyable family saga from a corner of the world that I’m all but familiar with – as regards Malaysia as a country as well as her (mixed) culture. It’s true that my latest two reviews were of classics set in the region, namely Siam (today: Thailand) and Burma (today: Myanmar), but their protagonists are English and both are written from an unmistakably western, i.e. American and British point of view respectively (»»» read my reviews of Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon and Burmese Days by George Orwell). To follow up with a contemporary novel giving an insider’s perspective of the cultural heritage and (partly tragic) history of South-East Asia in the twentieth century seemed the obvious thing to do. Admittedly, The Rice Mother is no deep and thought-provoking read of the kind that I adore, and yet I liked it very much and am happy to be able to recommend it to you.

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This review is a contribution to
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  1. Great review! I am going to seek this one out. I have read a great novel set in Malaysia written by Malaysian author Tash Aw: The Harmony Silk Factory.

    1. Thanks for your comment and your praise, Judy! I'm glad that you like my review... and I hope that I did the book justice so you aren't disappointed when you read it.

      I never heard of Tash Aw - which isn't much of a surprise since authors from outside Europe and the USA get far too little attention here. I'll have a look at your review of The Harmony Silk Factory.


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