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Cereus Blooms at Night

by Shani Mootoo

Mala Ramchandin, an old woman living on the island of Lantanacamara, is brought to the Paradise Alms House one night under restraints. Her gay nurse, Tyler, relates the old woman’s scandalous history. Having just returned home after completing his nurse’s training in the “Shivering Northern Wetlands,” Tyler finds his first friend and ally in the mad but harmless Mala. Thus begins Trinidadian-Canadian artist and writer Shani Mootoo’s debut novel.

Mootoo’s island in the sun – a sun temporarily obscured by a “menacing cloud of darkness” resulting from a fire connected with the sudden arrival of Mala – emerges with the grit and detail of childhood recalled. We learn of the up- and downsides of living in Paradise, a place where the Reverend Thoroughly and his wife come with promises of a better life for Indian immigrants who convert to Christianity. Lives turn sour when colonialists’ promises prove limited. Mala’s disappointed father, Chandin, becomes first a broken man and then the devil incarnate.

Mootoo unfolds a number of stories, most of which concern people who feel conspicuously lost. Against the bitterness of Chandin, who degenerates into evil, Mootoo contrasts a wide range of other odd characters: a man who sleeps all but one day a month, his daughter who dresses as a boy and who shares her father’s obsession with Mala, and of course Tyler, who craves that female nurse’s uniform and tights. Gender has a charming, seductive fluidity in this world. Mootoo even hints we might jump species – become a bird, say – if we really put our minds to it.
At the symbolic centre of all this longing and longing to belong is the cereus plant of the title. Ugly and overlooked, it blooms only at night and only briefly. But then dramatic events ensue. Working with magic, grounded by psychological insight, Mootoo weaves a deft design of vivid and sensuous scenes, climaxing in the night the cereus blooms against the fence in Mala’s yard. Mootoo has given us a memorable lesson in the value of love, whatever guise it may wear.