Sunday, March 15, 2009

Valmiki's Daughter by Shani Mootoo

Valmiki Krishnu is a respected medical doctor with a charming wife and two daughters. Viveka, the eldest, is studying English at university. Vashti is in high school. They live in a wealthy subdivision in Trinidad and, to outside appearances, are very much like the upper-class Indo-Trinidadians that make up their social circle.

Like the caged birds that Valmiki keeps, however, the Krishnus are trapped by the bars of their rigid community. Valmiki juggles his need for his longtime male lover, Saul, with his need for discretion in a place where eyes are everywhere. Several times in the course of the story, individuals experience very personal moments and then realize, shortly afterwards, that someone has been observing them. The small island country appears to offer no safety for those who do not fit into a stifling norm. Is life worth living if it is to be posing as someone you are not?

Viveka has a growing sense of her lesbianism and her parents are witness to her feelings. Valmiki wants his daughter to make better choices than he did, yet he cannot discuss this openly with her, nor with his wife.

It isn't surprising that this novel reminded me from the start of Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, with its focus on the nuances of Indo-Trinidadian society and with Valmiki Krishnu trapped in a life not of his choosing, much like Mohun Biswas. Indeed, Viveka is deeply intrigued by Naipaul's work.

The questions in this novel are not only if Viveka will demonstrate the courage she needs to be true to herself, but what effect that would have on her family if she does. A complex and deeply moving story.

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