By Shani Mootoo. Anansi, 398 pp, $29.95, hardcover
Everybody hurts, and in this Trinidadian family drama everybody hurts all the time.
Valmiki Krishnu is a successful doctor, a ladies’ man, and a devoted father—but he still pines for the male love of his life, a fellow medical student he dumped after finishing his degree. Valmiki’s wife, Devika, mourns the sham of her marriage, and the death in childhood of her only son. And Valmiki’s oldest daughter, Viveka, deplores her own inability to be fully herself within the double strictures of Trinidad’s conservative society and her family’s Brahmin caste.
Everyone’s hiding something. Valmiki poses as a serial adulterer, seducing his willing female patients while secretly conducting woodland trysts with Saul, a working-class hunting buddy. Devika plays the perfect housewife, but her covert fury spills over into the desire to control every aspect of her daughters’ lives. And the tomboy Viveka is just beginning to suspect that her teenage infatuation with her P.E. teacher, Miss Sally Russell, might signal more than just a schoolgirl crush.
Add self-centred little sister Vashti to the mix, and the Krishnu household is seething. And when a beautiful, bisexual Frenchwoman arrives on the scene, family tensions come to a boil.
It’s all a bit predictable: another coming-of-age story about sexual confusion and social mores. But Irish-born, Trinidad-raised, and Toronto-based author Shani Mootoo elevates her material through deft characterization, an ever-building sense of urgency, and her obvious love for an island landscape split between the piss-scented streets of San Fernando and the sweet air of an inland
Mootoo’s strengths make it easy to identify with Viveka, whose passage from shame-ridden adolescence into self-aware adulthood is described with poignant understanding. And although that voyage is not without tears, Viveka’s heartbreak also provides em>Valmiki’s Daughter with its manifesto: “In exchange for honesty, integrity, a lifetime of service, she prayed that she and all people like her be granted the freedom, so long as it did not hurt anyone, to love whomever they chose, to love well, and to have that love returned without judgement.”
Is this what the future holds for Viveka? That would be telling—but it’s also telling that we care.