Saturday, January 29, 2011

"TheJapanese Lover" by Rani Manicka

Paperback, 328 pages
Published May 13th 2010 by Hodder &Stoughton

"The Rice Mother", Rani Manicka's fabulous debut novel was one of my favorite novels for many years and still is, and so,it was with great excitement and expectation that I picked her third novel, "The Japanese Lover". The novel started nicely enough with the birth of a daughter in a poor man's home in Vathiri, North Ceylon in 1916. Because the man was extremely poor, but cunning and lazy too, when the astrologer predicted that this newly-born daughter would marry a fabulously wealthy man, he decided that "Parvathi" was his ticket out of servitude and into comfort.

When the time came for Parvathi to marry her father deceived the prospective groom by sending him a picture of a beautiful maiden, not Parvathi, and in this way managed to secure an alliance between his daughter and the wealthy Kasu (Money) Marimuthu, a 42-year old widower of Sri-Lankan/Tamil origin in Malaysia,then known as Malaya. However, when Parvathi arrived in Malaya after her arduous journey from Colomba and the bridegroom realized he was cheated,he is determined to send Parvathi back to her father's home, but that night as he lay spent and drunk, an apparition came to him instructing him never to get rid of his wife.

"If you could see what I see in your wife," the vision said quietly, "you would fall to your knees in awe. Know that she is an aodred soul who has incarnated to experience love in the most unlikely circumstances"  pg 31

  It is at this point in the novel that I realized that Rani Manicka's new novel, has, at the heart of it, characteristics and characters that would fit very nicely in the genre of magical realism - a similar theme ran through "The Rice Mother".

Anyway, although her husband decides to keep Parvathi, their marriage, while civil, is without passion or excitement. Parvathi works hard to become the sophisticated woman her husband wants her to be,but in her heart she is deeply unfulfilled...until, on page 183, when the Japanese invade Malaya (1941) the Japanese lover, which is also the title of the book, comes into her life.

Although this novel is nowhere near as enjoyable as "Rice Mother", it is immensely readable in parts.  Manicka is still a wiz at describing both, the exotic and the mundane and I absolutely devoured the pages where she describes marriages and deaths and even everyday scenes like lunch at her daughter's place or even a regular coffee morning with the mamis (Sri Lankan women in Malaya).  One of the most fascinating characters in 'The Japanese Lover' is the wise medicine woman, Maya, who while she prophesises and dispenses medicine to the people in the neighbourhood also looks after Parvathi's kitchen.   Manicka uses Maya as a vehicle for her metaphysical musings and while I found them wise and ponderable at first,  they diffuse into airy pulpiness after a while - because it overstretches the reader's concentration.

The personal tragedy of Parvathi's family plays out against a backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the local communist insurgency, the anti-Chinese riots and then the inevitable loss of Malaya when British colonies of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore join the Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. As the geography of Malaya changes so does Parvathi's life. The high society she was used to, no longer exists in which they live was at a dead end, and the lives they are leading seem to have run similarly out of road.

It seems to me that "The Japanese Lover" attempts to do too much -- combining geopolitics with the everyday life of a plantation owner's wife and telling a human story of loss and recovery whilst throwing in a lot of new ageypreachings and philosophes -- making it a hotch-potch of a read. 

Oh, and I almost forgot...towards the end of the book, Manicka allows Maya to rant against the Indian and how they suffer from an inferiority complex owing to their colour, but yet she makes a prediction that one day they will rise above it all.   When Manicka was quizzed about why she included that chapter, this is what she said in an interview:


While Parvati’s father – and her husband – never thought she was beautiful enough, other men such as the American Sam, the Japanese general and also the estate worker Kupu saw great beauty in her. In fact, dark-skinned women were looked down upon at that time.
"For me, this is a message to Indians in this country because they really do have a self-esteem problem and they deny it whenever I speak about it. It is so ingrained in them.
"With this book, I am saying it is okay if you are dark skinned."
 

24 comments:

Lazy Girl said...

Wow, what a fabulous review!!

xo,
Lah @ LazyGirl Reads

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you, Lazy Girl, you're too kind! I checked out your blog too...very nice...and amazing that you can keep your reviews spoiler-free, well done! Thanks for visiting!

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Angelique. Lovely review, and a lovely book too. And you know how much I love magic realism. One confession: I have Rani Manicka's 'The Rice Mother' but the size (580pp in paperback) intimidated me and I'm yet to read it. I'll do it, soon. Keep posting such lovely stuff :-)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Hansda and thank you! I hear ya, "The Rice Mother" could be a door stopper, but it's worth a read! I have to say, "The Japanese Lover" was only a fair read in comparison and quite disappointing for fans of 'The Rice Mother'.

My main quibble with the book is that it tried to do too much. I understand that because South-East Asian writers do not have large world lit. profiles, writers like Manicka, Tash Aw etc. feel the onus upon them to cover the area as much as they can, but one needs the right narrative structure for that which is where I feel Manicka didn't succeed with this one.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar said...

Hi, Angelique. Tash Aw is a favourite. Both 'The Harmony Silk Factory' and 'Map of the Invisible World' are outstanding works, having that right blend of history and literary beauty. As for Manicka, I think I'll do 'The Rice Mother' first, because I have the book and won't be able to sit still if I begin a different Manicka book before doing the first one. The overall premise of 'The Japanese Lover' seems wonderful. That skin-colour thing has been so rightly added. I wouldn't blame Manicka at all. And gods appearing in dreams and the entire magic realism stuff really appeals to me. Yes, we Asian authors may have a very limited world lit profile, but whatever we write, about the exotica of Asia and our respective countries, is so different from the fast literature of the west which find their place in genre fiction. Most of the stuff that we Asian writers write has that beauty of our part of the world and that invariably finds a place in literary fiction, in that serious literature category, to be read with the senses alert, to catch those sights, sounds and smells of our Asia. Ok, Angelique, what do you have to say about Manicka's third novel 'Touching Earth'? And also tell us about Tan Twan Eng and his book 'The Gift of Rain'.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

I resonate with the theme. The story seems ambitious. thanks.

Chinoiseries said...

Great review! I didn't even know she had a new book out. The Rice Mother is on my to-read list, but I am slightly disappointed to read in your review that Manicka is still as ambitious as ever to make her books as full of different themes as ever. I read Touching Earth by her, and it was, though not an unpleasant read, simply too much.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Hans! I so agree, Asian writers have a lot to share with the world, but sometimes, some of our writers are prone to leaning too much on India's "exotic" side, if not that, they tend to concentrate on its poverty. I tend to prefer stories that embrace a happy medium and those can be hard to come by. But then, I speak as a person of Indian origin - for a non-Indian who simply wants to visit India via a book something exotic will charm and entice quite nicely. I dunno.

Hans, I haven't read the second novels of Tash Aw and Rani Manicka, so can't comment, sorry!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Nana! Yes, it is quite ambitious. Started off well, but was very disappointing towards the end.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Chinoiseries, lovely to see you here! I try to stay away from books that to do too much, but 'Rice Mother' was such a great read, I just had to give "Japanese Lover" a chance. Disappointed. I won't stop reading her,because she is a good writer...she just needs to stop making her books so bloated. I heard Kamila Shamsie did the same thing with "Burnt Shadows"...have you read that one?

Leela Soma said...

Hi Angie,

As I started reading your wonderful review I realised that I had borrowed this book from the library and 'skip-read' to finish it. There was a request from someone else so I had to return the book and not extend it for another week.I remember Parvathi and her Japanese lover so well. You are so right some of the writing is superb, and you are right again when you say that the scope of the book was daunting. Manicka tried to bring in too many strands and meld them together. Thanks for your in-depth review, I feel I have a better idea of the book now. It is so satisfactory to read your book reviews as you put 200%+ effort into each of them and create perfect little masterpieces.

Lotus Reads said...

Leela, thank you for your lovely comment! I'm so glad you liked the write-up. I have to confess to feeling a little rusty when I started wrting this blog post -I allowed too much time to go by between this post and the previous one.

I'm so glad you share my views on this book. After I finished reading "The Japanese Lover" I went looking for reviews, eager to see if other readers had felt the same way I did, but curiously, there are very few reviews of this book online. I wonder why?

Sai said...

Lovely review...I really loved the way the author tries to redefine the Indian standard of beauty. There is indeed a self esteem issue that is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche and doesn't seem to go away.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Sai! I just re-read my review...so many spelling mistakes, I really must learn to use a spell checker!

Rani Manicka is a very talented writer, but I was a tad disappointed with "The Japanese Lover". If you do want to read something by her, I would recommend, "The Rice Mother" which is her first book.

Birdy said...

Great review! I cannot agree more with you about the dark skin complex. Beauty is never, ever associated with color for me unless you are talking about the Fall Season lol

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you, Birdy, and yeah, I hear you!!! :))

Violet said...

The Rice mother has been on my Wishlist for some time now. This book sounds great too. Love your review.

Priya Iyer said...

Lovely review!
The book sounds like one I'd like to read. :)

Happy Reader said...

An honest review, Angie. Loved reading it.

GEETHA said...

HI...
AS FOR ME ,I ENJOYED READING RANI S JAPANESE LOVER WELL.AN INTERESTING STORYLINE THAT INCLUDE PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AS WELL.WONDERFUL...

Dr Malpani said...

I really enjoyed reading this review.
Loved it!!

SEO Consultancy said...

Interesting!!
Short and sweet!

jamesreegan said...

There was a request from someone else so I had to return the book and not extend it for another week.I remember Parvathi and her Japanese lover so well.

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ameerazman said...

Just wondering is The Japanese Lovers has the same theme as The Rice Mother? It seems like both are about the same story just with different characters.

In fact, I've bought The Japanese Lovers the other day, and still reading it. Then I found out about The Rice Mother. So, just wondering, if they're the same, guess I dont have to buy The Rice Mother. Let me know :)