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Cereus Blooms at Night (thoughts)

January 27, 2009

Cereus Blooms at NightI have limited experience with Caribbean lit (the only one that springs is The Wide Sargasso Sea), which is precisely why I decided to do the Caribbean Challenge. And I began with Shani Mootoo(a Trinidadian)’s debut novel Cereus Blooms at Night.

I loved this book. You know Southern Gothic? This book is Caribbean gothic. It’s full of twisted families, and old houses, and thwarted love, and crazy old women…in other words, it’s awesome. ;) And it has a little bit of Latin American-style magical realism sprinkled in. It’s a short book (around 250 pages), so I don’t want to talk about the plot at all since you should discover for yourselves. Instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about my favourite character. He’s the narrator and tangential to the main story, so I can introduce you to him without giving anything away!

Tyler is a nurse in a retirement home, a male nurse, which is rare on his little (made-up) Caribbean island of Paradise. He became a nurse because:

What I really wanted was to make at least one old person smile or feel that she or he was of some value.

But Tyler has secrets of his own, like the way he felt when a young doctor entered the room:

That the doctor’s presence made me blush is not important to this story, but to ignore how alive and frisky I felt in his presence would be to deny the part of me that hopes for freedom. What he thought of me as I tried to accommodate his needs during that visit I do not know. What I do know is that he talked and joked with me in the same manner he would have with any other staff. I know my propensities are not invisible yet he did not recoil. For the first time in weeks I was not a curiosity.

Tyler is not only gay, he’s also got cross-dressing tendencies, and as the book progresses he becomes more true to himself despite the judgement of society. There’s also a little romance for him, and I just loved the way Mootoo went with his character. I haven’t read a lot of GLBQT lit (need to work on that!), and it was interesting to see a secondary character given such unexpected qualities. He was probably my favourite of the book, for his compassion and love and self-knowledge. On the GLBQT note, Tyler’s isn’t the only non-traditional love story in the book.

Of course, since this was for the Caribbean challenge, I should probably talk a little bit about the sense of place in the book! As I mentioned earlier, Mootoo made up an island called Paradise, but she definitely brought the Caribbean to life for me. Not in a huge way-I wouldn’t say the setting is Mootoo’s main focus-but it’s woven into the story. Anyway, Mootoo has two other novels (He Drown She in the Sea and Valmiki’s Daughter) and a short story collection (Out on Main Street); I will definitely be checking them out.

Notable Passages
Pohpoh’s heart lept when she saw the tips of Aunt Lavinia’s fingers grasping Mama’s waist. She understood something in that instant but save for a flash of an image of her father’s face in her mind, she had no words to describe what she suddenly realized was their secret. She tried not to let her eyes rest too long on Aunt Lavinia’s fingers.

I walked over to her and stood where I was bound to be in her vision. At first I felt horribly silly, like a man who had put on women’s clothing for sheer sport and had forgotten to remove the outfit after the allotted period of fun. I felt flat-footed and clumsy. Not a man and not ever able to be a woman, suspended nameless in the limbo state between existence and nonexistence.

By the time Ambrosia was five, her parents were embroiled in their marital problems to the exclusion of all else, including their child. They hardly noticed that their daughter was transforming herself into their son. Ambrose slept right through the month, undisturbed until the first Saturday of the next, and Elsie, hungry for a male in the house, went along with his (her) strong belief that he (she) was really and truly meant to be a boy. Elsie fully expected that he (she) would outgrow the foolishness soon enough. But the child walked and ran and dressed and talked and and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy that Elsie soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl. And the father, in his few waking episode, seemed not to remember that he had once fathered one.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2009 12:50 pm

    Thanks so much for reviewing this—I love a good gothic novel, and Caribbean gothic, as you call it, sounds so intriguing. Will definitely be adding this to the TBRs.

  2. January 27, 2009 1:01 pm

    Caribbean gothic! With GLBQT narrator! I SO want this book. And as always, you picked some wonderful passages to share.

  3. January 27, 2009 1:12 pm

    I kind of think I might not be a fan of the Southern Gothic genre, but I do like Latin American magical realism, so consider me intrigued!

  4. January 27, 2009 1:45 pm

    And on the TBR list it goes! :-)
    Lezlie

  5. lena permalink
    January 27, 2009 2:57 pm

    You had me at “Caribbean Gothic.” :D

  6. January 27, 2009 4:52 pm

    Yep. As soon as I read “Caribbean Gothic” I knew I was done for!! This is defintely going on the TBR list!

  7. January 27, 2009 5:21 pm

    I skimmed your review because I definitely want to read it and don’t like to know details of the story before I do. Glad you liked it, I’m doing the Caribbean challenge too.

  8. January 27, 2009 5:44 pm

    I haven’t read any Caribbean lit either! Might be time to change that. :)

  9. January 27, 2009 7:30 pm

    This does sound interesting, Eva. I’ve never even thought about Caribbean lit, so you can see how much I’ve read. ;)

  10. January 27, 2009 7:50 pm

    this sounds truly fascinating!! I’ve read a lot of GLBQT YA but nothing with a Caribbean gothic feel to it!!

  11. January 27, 2009 8:26 pm

    Wow, this one sounds really interesting. I have been enjoying the gothic type novels I read last year, and I don’t read enough Carribean lit, that is for sure!

  12. January 27, 2009 10:43 pm

    Rebecca, I hope you enjoy it!

    Nymeth, I thought it was your type of book. ;)

    Steph, if you’re not a fan of really messed up families, this book probably isn’t your cup of tea!

    Lezlie, hehe.

    Lena, yay!

    Stephanie, another gothic fan!

    Sandra, I hope you enjoy it. :)

    Andi, I enjoyed it!

    Amy, before I saw the challenge, I didn’t really think about Caribbean lit either. :D

    Staci, yeah-the GLBQT is definitely a big part of the story, but it’s not the star, if that makes sense.

    Kim, I feel like I don’t read anough of any lit, lol. I guess that’s what book blogging does to you!

  13. January 28, 2009 6:22 am

    I haven’t heard of this book — you’re review is so well-written that I’ll be adding it to the proverbial wish list :)

    My I recommend Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s *The Pirate’s Daughter* for your Caribbean challenge list …

  14. January 28, 2009 7:45 am

    I’ve haven’t read any Caribbean lit. that I know of but I’m intrigued by your review. You hooked me with telling me it had a gothic feel to it. Great review Eva!

  15. January 28, 2009 8:51 am

    Don’t mind messed up families, I’m just one of those rare people who (and I know the following is sacrilege to many readers, so don’t lance me for it!) didn’t like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”, hence my assertion that I don’t like Southern Gothic. But this could be up my alley! So I’m open to giving it a try when I have my TBR pile under control… ;)

  16. January 28, 2009 5:33 pm

    oh oh oh! I love Wide Sargasso Sea!

  17. January 28, 2009 10:29 pm

    Dawn, aww-thanks! The Pirate’s Daughter was already in my pool, but since you recommended it, I’ll bump it up the mental priority list. :)

    Samantha, thanks!

    Steph, I haven’t read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter…and while I love To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t call it Southern Gothic. You should read the story “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner and see what you think of that. ;)

    Jessica, I loved half of Wide Sargasso Sea, lol.

  18. January 29, 2009 10:10 am

    This book looks so so good to me. Thanks for posting, your blog is great!

  19. January 30, 2009 12:25 pm

    I didn’t realize Caribbean lit existed. Sounds like a good book.

  20. Géraldine permalink
    November 27, 2010 5:57 am

    I stumbled on your blog completely by chance because I was looking about for further information on “Cereus Blooms at Night” after I had read it for a seminar (called “Vulnerable Bodies and Imagined Spaces”, now doesn’t that sound interesting!). I absolutely loved it and am actually really glad to see so many other people enjoying it as well :)
    On the seminar list are three other books that might interest you: “Annie John”, “The Stone Virgins” (hard to grasp at the first read, since the style is so poetic) and “The Uncle’s Story” (also enjoyed it quite a bit).

    Anyway, great blog, and will be visiting it often for book ideas from now on :)

  21. Géraldine permalink
    November 27, 2010 6:05 am

    Ah! I forgot to mention that “The Uncle’s Story” was from the same author as the “Whale’s Rider”, Witi Ihimaera, which you seemed to have liked :)

    Sorry for the double post!

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