Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Book Review Contest: The Rice Mother (Reviewed by Yvonne Ho)

The novel reviewed entitles ‘The Rice Mother’ by Rani Manicka. This powerful and moving novel revolves around four generations of women who encounter love, war, duty and hope. A beautifully-woven novel that portrays an intense feminine figure that holds the cradle of life (as rice is the main staple of Asian cultures that sustains life) in her hands through its story title; this already forecasts to us that the story will primarily revolve around the courage of the women who handles life’s shortcomings in varying time periods. For a little introduction, The Rice Mother is known as the Giver of Life in Bali, where her spirit lives in effigies made out of sheaves of rice. She is so sacred that sinners are forbidden to enter in her presence or consume a single grain from her figurine. Along with this story, the matriarch, Lakshmi, is compared to the Rice Mother for it is her that holds the burning dreams of her children and grandchildren in her strong hands and passing years will not diminish her courage and strength in defending them.

Every good story carries a theme which is basically a one-sentence description of what the story is about. A theme is not the plot nor the story line but the meaning behind it. In this particular novel by Rani Manicka, it is evident the theme of the novel surrounds the lives of four generations of women who fight for love, war, duty and hope. The setting of the story spans through the pre and post Japanese Occupation period, around the year 1916 to the year 1991, in Malaya, now known as Malaysia. A crucial yet colourful period of the Malayan history, the author has chosen a very appealing setting in which she exploited to her advantage. It is most interesting to note that this story is presented from the first point of narrative view, where the story is told from each character’s own point of view in the form of memoirs. Readers would have to keep on their feet to tie each character’s narrations together and evaluate them because the first-person narration can be unreliable, as later proven through the memoirs of Dimple’s mother, Rani. However, Manicka has done a good job of arranging the sequence of memoirs in a systematic manner, even if it was not in a chronological flow, making it easy for the readers to capture the essence of her book.

The protagonists of this novel are three women from three different generations; Lakshmi the matriarch, Dimple the grand-daughter, and Nisha the great-granddaughter who is the true heir of the family’s dynasty. Lakshmi, Dimple and Nisha each face life trials from their own generations through the Japanese occupation, past violence, drug abuses, marriages, births, losses and family secrets. Lakshmi’s story begins when she is conned into an arranged marriage with Ayah who apparently owns a ‘rich’ business in the land of Malaya. At the tender age of fourteen, she dealt with this painful truth while separated from her beloved mother in India and attempts to raise her five children to the very best she could, often being very selfish and forcing her ambitions on her children. Lakshmi's oldest children, twins Lakshmnan and Mohini, are the most developed and dynamic. Lakshmi loves these two for their beauty and potential, but each breaks her heart in very different ways. All seemed well for the family of seven until the Japanese Occupation landed in Malaya and threatened to tear apart the family in shreds. The author has done a brilliant job of describing the disturbing and gruesome rule of the Japanese and it provides a very thoughtful insight for the readers. It is during the Japanese Occupation that Mohini is raped and tortured to death by the soldiers and this threw the family’s course to a new dimension never occurred before. Blaming himself for his twin’s death, Lakshmnan’s sudden change in personality shocks and breaks his mother’s heart. This line of tension is carried through to the relationship between Lakshmi and his wife, Rani. When Dimple is born to Lakshmnan and Rani, she instantly becomes the favourite grand-daughter of the family for she carried similar physical traits of Mohini. She captures the painful family history on audiotape and leaves her daughter, Nisha, to uncover the truths of the family heritage after her failed marriage and suicide.

Written from many points-of-views, in the voices of many family members, THE RICE MOTHER is an interesting read. Although the novel is quite complex, the painful message of love and hope is clearly delivered. This novel left me in tears for Manicka has cleverly captured the essence of the characters’ pain, loneliness and ultimately the beauty of the South-East Asian culture in a voice so unique of its own.

1 comment:

Seng Chye said...

Beautiful =)