Similarity in Dysfunction: N. Dalton Speidel on Preeta Samarasan’s novel Evening is the Whole Day


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Evening is the Whole Day, Preeta Samarasan, Houghton Mifflin

 

Those immortal words, “Can’t we all just get along?”, are never really answered in a positive manner. Indeed, asking the question at all testifies to the content of the relationship. Preeta Samarasan juxtaposes the word with the sword in fine style in her debut novel, Evening is the Whole Day, illustrating that the answer to the question of getting along is never easy, never a straight shot, never without qualifications. Against the backdrop of conflict and revolution in Malaysia , a family cuts each other with their tongues. One of many snide comments from Paati, the mother of Appa, one of the main characters and the patriarch of the book, plants a seed of doubt in his mind. Like an insidious snake it wraps around his train of thought. Writhing, enveloping, and smothering, it tightens and makes Appa begin to see the whole world as a dangerous disappointment. How he reacts to the other characters, and especially his wife,  makes for more friction and a tangle of misperceived intent. It is no coincidence that the title of the novel comes from a classic Tamil work exploring the bonds of friendship, love, and the effects of separation. Samarasan sees the word ‘bonds’ as a literal entity and elaborates on this theme in her shimmering prose. Instead of slicing away the constriction, the characters of Evening is the Whole Day chisel away at each other’s very essences doing more damage in the end than the mental binding ever could.

We see the familial and the nationalistic results of this friction in the setting, which also becomes a character of its own, buzzing with its own dialogue and repeating the phrase “…fact and rumor, fact and rumor.” Samarasan sinks us into the locale and the family bit by bit. The chatter of the first chapters gives the feel of a stage or musical. I am reminded of the street scene from the Broadway show Oliver wherein the vendors call out to advertise their wares. Layer by layer, we are immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of Malaysia and of the Big House where the family tries to work out their fates to the best of their abilities. Although their house is indeed big, and the word can be only an adjective, the title of Big House implies the slavery of the mind that the war of words causes. And, it is reminiscent of the Oliver’s orphanage wherein the poor boy just wants more. Samarasan’s characters also just want more… more love, more understanding, more connection, more stability. And, just as in Broadway’s Oliver, when we hear the crystal voice of Oliver himself through the din of the other voices, bits and parts of Samarasan’s plot and storyline are revealed to us through each character’s perspective one at a time, and all fit together brilliantly by the end of the book.

 

But, unlike Oliver, there is no rich benefactor to act as savior. Each of Samarasan’s characters must pick up their own pieces, and in that action, there is some hope. That very American notion of picking one’s self up by one’s bootstraps is found here in a work that sounds foreign to many readers. After all, who lets so many characters speak at once? And who doesn’t tell a story from beginning to end in a linear fashion? For all its Malaysian construction and sensibility, the truths in this book are universal.

 

Tolstoy tells us that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. However, there is more to the story. There is similarity in dysfunction as well, and Samarasan shows us that this is true. Readers can identify with traits of the characters (either in themselves or their loved ones) for all of us have known betrayal, doubt, aggression, and ugliness at the hands of another—often someone closest to us. Indeed, fans of Tolstoy or D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers will find much that is recognizable in Samarasan’s tale as through a detailed and skillfully woven story, she speaks to us all.

 

 

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