Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Shani Mootoo and all those decisions

I just finished reading Shani Mootoo's second novel, He Drown She in the Sea. Shani Mootoo, if you haven't heard of her, is a writer who was born in Ireland of East Indian parents, grew up in Trinidad, and moved to Canada in the 1980's. In other words, a Canadian! Her first novel, "Cereus Blooms at Night," was a contender for a raft of prizes, as the jacket blurb tells us. (Note to self: second novels are useful for advertising your FIRST novel.) I first heard of Shani when I read her story "Out on Main Street" in The Vancouver Stories. Although there are lots of West Coast luminaries in that book, I thought Shani's story was the best, the freshest. Then I attended a reading she gave at Robson Square in Vancouver soon after the release of He Drown She in the Sea--and bought the book.

In He Drown She in the Sea Harry St. George loves Rose Sangha from the time they are small children playing in the Sangha home on the Caribbean island of Guanagaspar. But Rose is the daughter of the house, and Harry is the son of the house's laundress, which makes any personal relationship "unsuitable." Rose grows up to marry Shem Bihar, a suitable man, and Harry immigrates to Canada. Many years later Rose visits her grown daughter in Vancouver and renews aquaintance with Harry. Rose returns to Guanagaspar determined to rejoin Harry--but only after the holidays.

The story is told non-sequentially, mostly by Harry and, through her maid Piyari, by Rose. The dialect that was employed effectively in "Out on Main Street" is still present but what would have been tiresome in a longer work has become a rhythmic reminder that we're not in Canada anymore.

I could not stop reading this book and finished it with that reader's high that follows a well-written book with beautifully drawn characters--that high that is mixed with regret that there are no more pages to turn. But I also can't help reading like a writer now and, at this stage in writing my own second novel, I see He Drown She in the Sea as a series of DECISIONS. It's not that I question those decisions, far from it, but I see not only the novel that IS, but the novel that would have resulted from different decisions.

What are some of those decisions? There are the obvious and basic decisions of what story to tell, where to set it, what characters to include, etc. You know, all those EASY decisions. But I'm thinking more of the decisions that come during those first few chapters, the decisions I'm making. (Yes, it's all about me.) Shani decided to let Harry tell his part of the story directly, although in third person, not first. She decided that Rose would tell her part of the story indirectly by talking about her plans to her maid Piyari. (This actually means she tells her story in first person, using "I," although Piyari uses third person in telling about it. Got that? Read the book.) Shani decided to let Mrs. Sangha, Rose's mother, and Dolly St. George, Harry's mother (both of whom are memorable characters), tell part of the story. Shani decided to tell the story non-sequentially, filling in the holes, answering the questions she has caused the reader to ask. (Look at my sequential summary above. The way the story is actually told, allowing us to travel backward and forward in time, makes it much more interesting, much more of a puzzle, than a sequential telling.) Shani decided to use mostly past tense, but there are occasionally other tenses, and these switches work; I didn't even notice them at first.

If Shani Mootoo had made different decisions, the novel would be different, a little different or a lot different. Read the book Shani wrote. Then imagine it told in first person by Rose Bihar in the order events happened. Completely different book.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. I have seven (first-draft) chapters done, and I'm still deciding which version of this book I want to write. Gee, if there are alternate universes, then I guess I'm writing a version of this book in each of them. I hope this is the universe where I write the GOOD version.


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