Scents war and mingle in Shani Mootoo’s evocative first novel Cereus Blooms at Night. Troubling the sultry air of a Caribbean village, with its reassuring smells of coal, decaying guavas, chicken coops, and periwinkle snails, are other scents that testify to human brutality–rotting flesh, the sour body odor of an abusive father, a fermented mixture of hot peppers and lime brewed to cause pain.
Like the exotic cereus flower’s nocturnal perfume “with its two edges–one a vanilla-like sweetness, the other a curdling,” Mootoo’s occasionally languid narrative is both cloying and bitter. Years of abuse by her father drive Mala Ramchandin, the novel’s central character, to madness. But the compassion of Tyler, the gay male nurse who cares for her when she is consigned to an old-age home, draws her out. Although the old woman has abandoned human speech in favor of imitation bird and insect calls, the selflessly patient Tyler wins Mala’s trust while, at the same time, finding love with the dashing Otoh, son of Mala’s first suitor. Flashbacks that alternate between these characters’ perspectives gradually divulge the scandal and mystery in Mala’s past.
Mootoo, who was born in Ireland and grew up in Trinidad, conjures up the archly named village of Paradise with vivid details. We see the writhing movements of a praying mantis tortured by schoolboys. We sit in a tomb smelling of burnt wax, and hear grave diggers’ shovels colliding with rock. We see a white sheet dissolve into a cloud of moths so thickly clustered that “the tiny hooks on the edges of their wings had locked together.” So intense are these images that they sometimes stall the book’s momentum, as if the plot itself were dazed by its brilliant surroundings.
Against the backdrop of this very physical world, Mootoo’s main characters appear alienated. All are outsiders, whether because of sexual orientation or family shame. And all, even Mala’s loathsome father, Chandin, taught by a priggish missionary to despise the island’s native culture, seek wholeness by losing themselves in obsessions.
In some cases, as with Chandin’s outbursts of violence, the resultant behavior is convincing. At other times, actions seem motivated less by psychology than by an overzealous narrative extravagance with tired roots in magical realism. A tormented heroine communicates by squawking like a parrot–so far, so good. But when she also takes to piling all her furniture up into barricades, scorching her own tongue, and infiltrating strangers’ houses at night (and all this in a town called Paradise), the reader may perhaps feel manipulated.
The over-choreographed madness of those who stay in Paradise is finally less intriguing than the town itself, which develops into the most credible character in the novel. Such florid behavior pales beside the descriptions of the setting. “I wonder,” Tyler muses at one point, “how many of us, feeling unsafe and unprotected, either end up running far away from everything we know and love, or staying and simply going mad.” The choice is less cruel than it seems: the characters who stay in Paradise find a love that may heal insanity.