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The Book of Ifs and Buts

by Rabindranath Maharaj

Rabindranath Maharaj has already published three well-received books of fiction, including The Interloper, a story collection nominated for the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. But while this collection of eight stories and a novella has some lovely moments, too many careless stories ultimately undermine the work.

“The Journey of Angels” opens the collection. Intricately layered, the novella tells the story of Saren, a young Armenian gardener who moves to New York after his wife leaves him for one of his clients, a renowned professor of biotechnology. Once in New York, Saren begins to study the professor’s scientific work, and then to impersonate him, in a strange attempt to reclaim a viable identity. In telling this sad, quirky tale, Maharaj makes unexpected and fascinating analogies between immigrants and viruses unleashed by biotechnological tinkering.

After such weighty stuff, the stories – mostly about Trinidadian characters immigrating to Canada – feel like a series of tacked-on afterthoughts, jarringly flimsy. “The Diary of a Down-courage Domestic” really does read like a diary, meandering through the life f an immigrant house cleaner without giving a coherent sense of what her experiences amount to. It’s more of a historical document (important as such documents might be) than a fully realized piece of fiction. Lacking either the metaphorical sophistication of the novella or a satisfying narrative arc, it feels half-finished.

There are lovely moments in the stories. Maharaj has an endearing weakness for quixotic eccentrics like the lead in “Swami Pankaj,” a clever Trinidadian gardener who dreams of moving to Tibet to become a miracle-performing swami. Sometimes Maharaj goes overboard with the silliness, but at its best his gently mocking attitude towards people’s flaws and foibles is humanely funny.