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Bookmarks: Spirit-inspired

First novel by SFU prof is dual tale of coping with mental illness and the immigrant experience

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Soucouyant, by David Chariandy

Arsenal Pulp Press

$19.95, 200 pgs.

Reveiwed by Holly Fraughton

If you’re amongst the legions of voracious readers who tend to shy away from thin novels — myself included — you may reconsider your selection criteria after reading Soucouyant .

The novel is the impressive first effort of Vancouver-based David Chariandy, a professor of literature at Simon Fraser University.

At its most basic level, Soucouyant tells the story of an immigrant family struggling to cope with their mother, Adele’s, early onset dementia. To make matters worse, the family has trouble assimilating within their predominantly white, suburban neighbourhood of Scarborough Bluffs.

While the central character and narrator, the youngest son, is well developed through first-person descriptive memories, he remains nameless throughout the novel.

The narrator clearly feels a weight of responsibility for Adele after his father dies in a workplace accident, and his older brother abandons them to pursue his dreams of becoming a poet.

Unable to cope with the burden of being his mother’s sole caregiver as she slips further away from reality and drifts back to terrible memories from her childhood in Trinidad, her youngest son also leaves home, only to return two years later to discover a strange young woman has stepped in to look after Adele.

While slightly enigmatic at times, Chariandy’s descriptions are rich and somber, and his writing, choppy and poetic.

“Is it wise for this young woman to so quickly take me at my word? I steal glances at her in turn. Her lashes and lush dart of her eyebrows. Her thin back and her collarbones. Her birthmark of a comet, maybe. A flare of energy traveling down her neck.”

Adele’s illness has led her to develop a habit of wandering off, and each time she escapes on one of her misadventures, the narrator and her mysterious caregiver, Meera, are sent into a panic, scrambling to find her before she hurts herself.

“I can’t find her.

“I’ve returned from my walk and searched the entire house but Mother’s nowhere to be found. She isn’t in the sitting room or her bedroom. The bathroom is empty. I run downstairs to check the front door closet, noticing that Mother’s coat is still there, her slippers and sneakers too. A good sign, a bad sign? An old woman barefooted and lost in the dark and cold?”

The novel is filled with sad, panicked moments like these, helping the reader to gain an understanding, if only for a brief moment, of what it might be like to care for a loved one with a serious mental illness.

Aside from telling one family’s troubling story, Chariandy’s tale is also riddled with mysterious, dark references to Caribbean folklore, and touches on deeper issues of racism, sexual exploitation and colonialism.

Forgetting, a central theme within the novel, is tied to Chariandy’s vague references to a “soucouyant” — a Caribbean evil spirit — that Adele encountered as a child. But her experience with this “being” is actually connected to a traumatic childhood memory.

Since this connection isn’t fully explained until the end of the novel, the reader is left with a somewhat frustrating gap in the storyline, and a sense of confusion.

Gripped by guilt for leaving Adele, the narrator is desperate to not only make amends, but to try and pull the troubling stories from his mother’s crumbling mind. While Adele struggles to remember, her son cannot seem to forget.

Adele’s troubled history, both horrific and heart wrenching, is finally revealed at the end of the novel, creating a sense of completion, understanding, and closure.

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