Monday, August 11, 2008

"Evening Is the Whole Day"

Preeta Samarasan was born and raised in Malaysia, and moved to the United States in high school. After spending several years ostensibly working on a dissertation on gypsy music in France, but all the while writing fiction, she decided to switch tracks. She recently received her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Evening Is the Whole Day, and reported the following:
My novel, Evening Is The Whole Day, is about an ethnic Indian family in Malaysia. It is a meditation on the immense role of race and class in Malaysia, and in that sense it is an attempt to tell a national history through the lives of individuals. Everything that happens in this novel stems from the inevitable trajectories that race and class impose upon these characters. Because the narrative is related largely backwards, a reader who opens to page 69 will not be able to draw these connections; the disappointments that chronologically precede the scene on this page are revealed only in a subsequent chapter, and so are not mentioned or alluded to here.

Yet in other ways, page 69 is quite representative of the novel. On this page, the parents -- Appa and Amma -- have left to attend the grandmother's funeral, and the three children -- Uma (18), Suresh (11), and Aasha (6) -- are fending for themselves for the afternoon. The relationships between these siblings are central to the plot and themes of my novel, and here we catch a vivid glimpse of those relationships. The siblings are eating their lunch: an omelet that Uma has had to make them, though she does not speak or otherwise interact with her brother and sister in any other way. Inaccessible, impassive, she reads a book at the dining table, moving only to flip her Simon and Garfunkel cassette tape every time it ends. Suresh insulates and distracts himself with humour of all kinds: gothic, dry, slapstick. He imagines the reaction of Chellam the maidservant if his mother had asked her to prepare the children's lunch, and his comic speculation hints at dark secrets that preoccupy him despite all his efforts at nonchalance: "You!" Chellam screeches at his mother in his fantasy. "How dare you ask me to feed your lying children! What-what evil you can do, but you can't break your own bloody eggs, is it?"

But it is little Aasha's anxious yearning that pervades this entire scene, just as it does much of the book. Like Suresh, she gags on the omelet, but "hers is not a pretend gag for comic relief." All she can see and hear and feel is her sister, and "the crucial question of Why Uma Made the Omelet" consumes her. This moment in the children's lives is tense, melancholy, and yet hopeful. You, dear reader, might lean towards Suresh's realistic answer to the crucial question -- "that Uma made the omelet primarily because the process took far less time, effort and thought than resisting Amma" -- but you will turn the page because you want to believe, like Aasha, that there could be another, better reason; because there is always the possibility that on the next page, her "infinite, illogical hope" will be borne out. Disillusionment and cynicism may not have destroyed everything in this family; there may be -- oh, what if there is! -- tenderness lurking under the afternoon's quiet surface.
Read an excerpt from Evening Is the Whole Day, and learn more about the author and her work at Preeta Samarasan's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue