An adopted child puzzles and enlightens those whose lives she touches in this moving exploration of the little-told history and mythology of Guyana—perfect for fans of Eowyn Ivey's Snow Child In 1917, the last ship taking indentured laborers from India to the sugar plantations of British Guiana sets sail, taking with it Rampat and Parvati, a childless couple looking for a new future. During a furious storm at sea, a child is born and is put into their arms as the unwed mother dies. They adopt her and call her Neela. From the beginning, Neela's birth has given rise to talk of the mystery surrounding the legend of the sea goddess Ganga and, some 15 years later, Neela is seen as being human and divine, a destroyer and a savior, to be feared. Neela's story, told against a backdrop of slavery and indentureship, of family and community, and of the growing racial conflict between Indians and Africans reveals a country and a people shaped by history and mythological superstition.
When my son was small he had a wonderful childminder. She was from Guyana. I had no idea about the history of that country and was surprised to discover that she was Indian and a Hindu - a small statue of Ganesh sat in her front room. This book tells the tale of a couple of indentured Indians who made the daunting journey from South Asia to the Caribbean coast of South America and the orphaned baby they adopt whilst still at sea.
Their stories are set against the wider history of Guyana and in particular the violent tensions between the majority Asian community and the community of former African slaves, which followed the end of British rule and has continued until the present day.
The book reminded me of the South American magic realism of Isabel Allende and (to a lesser extent) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In many ways it stands up well to the comparison with these heavyweights, although inevitably it falls short. Hinduism, it seems to me, is well suited to the magic realist treatment, with its multitude of gods, spirits, and demons, who are present in the everyday lives of their followers, in a way that South American Catholicism combined with indigenous beliefs is in the Allende's and Marquez's work.
I understand the story was inspired by the idea of a child born at sea. Neela, the child whose roots are in the sea, who may or may not be a devi (an Indian water goddess), is full of references to the water - she flows, she wades through air. The author keeps us guessing at her true nature. We see her through the eyes of her doting father, her mother who wants to ground her nature with a marriage and Billa, her parent's Tamil friend, who had seen magic everywhere, even in the air itself, and who could always pluck a story from it and make it live.
Neela never comes into focus. She sings, she combs her hair, she goes for night-time swims. She disappears and briefly appears again. In the last third of the book the story shifts to the political situation, away from Neela and her parents. The political story fascinated me, but structurally something felt wrong. Unlike in House of Spirits where the last generation is active politically and falls foul of the regime, in this book Neela's story is not woven into the politics. There is violence, including the death of a key character, but somehow there is less tension.
Ryhaan Shah has a fascinating writing style, often repeating phrases and rhythms, in long sentences which mount to a climax: There came a day when he wished he could go back and undo all of his foolishness, undo all of his unbelief for he was sure that it was that that had angered the gods: that he had given himself over to the happiness, to the moment's happiness and become unmindful of all the signs, all the warnings that had been revealed to him, for he had no sooner walked away from the club and its music and its laughter, had no sooner turned his back on the singer in red that the news came of the troubles that were to unravel all around them. It's wonderful to read a writer who is unafraid to write like this.
I enjoyed this book and am grateful to the publishers who gave me a copy in return for a fair review.