Author Tags: Fiction
David Chariandy lives in Vancouver and teaches in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. Soucouyant, his first novel, was nominated for numerous literary awards including the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Vancouver Public Library's "One Book, One Vancouver" program. It was also "long-listed" for the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest and most international prize of its kind. [See review below].
Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp Press $19.95, 2007; Re-release: Arsenal 2014) By David Chariandy 9781551522265
[PHOTO by Glen Lowry]
Soucouyant (Arsenal Pulp $19.95)
from Cherie Thiessen
In Soucouyant we are introduced to a Trinidadian variation of the vampire. The term refers to an old woman who sheds her skin at night, flies through the air, and usually appears as a ball of fire.
During the day she might be an old woman lurking at the edge of the village, but at night—watch out—the soucouyant sucks blood from its victims.
It’s a lilting word, soucouyant, but there’s nothing uplifting about the story that first-time novelist David Chariandy has wrapped around its presence.
Set in the Toronto-area in the 1970s, Soucouyant is mostly the immigrant Adele’s story, narrated through her son’s eyes, although Chariandy tosses in some of Trinidad’s history for good measure.
As a child in the Caribbean, “one morning when the sun was only a stain on the edge of the earth and the moon hadn’t yet gone under,” Adele encountered the evil presence of the soucouyant while running through the forest in Carenage. It was a premonition of the direst sort. Not long afterwards, Adele’s mother became like the soucouyant.
When Adele arrived in Canada to work as a domestic ten years earlier, she was stared at, treated like a whore by the men, and made so uncomfortable that she rarely left her apartment. Then she became prone to early-onset dementia. Even though she’s still a relatively young woman, she is increasingly vicitimized by cognitive deterioration that includes memory loss.
Or is the soucouyant somehow to blame? Could the trauma of that childhood meeting with the soucouyant have followed her to Canada and brought the disease on prematurely? And could this be an inherited condition?
The narrator himself appears to be one teabag short of a pot. We don’t hold out much hope for his future. The father, Roger, was killed at work, leaving his two sons to cope. A monthly widow’s pension enabled the diminished family to survive, but then the unnamed oldest son abandoned his mother and his doting young brother.
In the novel, both the narrator and his older brother are nameless. The latter never makes an appearance, although according to Adele’s neighbour Meera he returns now and again with a little money for his mother, and once with a box of old books for Meera.
Meera is an attractive and bright young woman, probably about 18, but it’s hard to know for sure, as Chariandy has a laid-back approach to time. Meera has mostly kept her distance, not wanting others to identify her as being ‘like them,’ the embarrassing family that lives up the block in the old house, uneducated and rough, with those two boys.
Because Meera avoided them, the narrator (let’s call him X) doesn’t recognize her when he discovers her in his mother’s home. Initially, he thinks she’s a live-in nurse, caring for his mother. X seems a little spaced himself, so it takes a while for him to figure out that a nurse would have an income, and would not have to live rough in the attic or wear clothes stolen from his drawer and closet.
Meera, in fact, has turned her back on her classes and university scholarship and her home. Her distressed mother has no idea where she is until X informs her. Compelled to move in with the abandoned Adele, Meera feels she must atone for being one of those cruel young people who had earlier harassed the immigrant family with anonymous phone calls and worse.
Meera’s educated mother was also from the Caribbean, and although Meera’s father is Welsh, as far as the neighbourhood is concerned, she’s a ‘darkie.’
At 17, X decides he doesn’t want to be his mother’s nursemaid anymore. He tells her he’s made provisions for her, but she can’t understand. What sort of provisions would leave her in a house alone, where realistically she could not have survived for more than a few days?
The abandonment is callous. It’s not clear how long it is before Meera moves in to care for her, but maybe Adele’s long time friend, Mrs. Christenson, has filled in the gap.
Certainly her later “bill for services rendered” would indicate that, but details in Soucouyant are often sketchy.
The incredible neglect of Adele continues until she is killed by a preventable accident at home. Previously she has trashed the kitchen many times, disappeared outside, and run baths that have overflowed.
Are Meera and X intentionally depicted as monsters sponging off a sick woman, culpable for her death?
When there is a quarrel, Meera simply walks out on the woman who has come to depend on her, without so much as a goodbye.
Then, knowing that his mother has been wandering down to the basement, X goes to bed without securing her safety or locking the door that leads to her death.
The nightmarish outlandishness of this dysfunctional family continues. Mrs. Christenson arrives to take care of the funeral arrangemnts and presents her bill for home care for $345,033.48.
After X has sold the family home for $53,000, he allows her to bully him into handing it all over, even his brother’s half.
This story disintegrates into a rant, and the characterization is not always credible, but the evocation of the soucouyant is effective and Soucouyant succeeds with its images of the Caribbean.
No doubt it was the originality of this uneven first novel that enabled Chariandy, who teaches in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University, to gain nominations for two prestigious fiction prizes.
-- review by Cherie Thiessen
[BCBW 2007] "fiction"