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Cereus Blooms at Night

by Shani Mootoo

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4621041,349 (3.6)14
When Mala, old and notoriously crazy, arrives at the Paradise Alms House, she is placed in the tender care of Tyler, a gay male nurse, and an extraordinary relationship begins to develop.

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
This is an unusual but absolutely brilliant book. A few years ago when CBC published a list of 100 Novels that Make us Proud to Be Canadian I had read about 68 of them. I have added a few more and this one is the latest. Otherwise I probably never would have discovered this book. It came out in 1996 which was just when I was back in school and also working so I had very little time for reading.

Tyler is a nurse on the fictional island of Lantanacamara which is probably somewhere in the Caribbean. (The author is from Trinidad originally so she was probably using her background to create Lantanacamara.) He is hired at the Paradise Alms House but instead of using his nursing skills he is mainly doing janitorial work. Then Mala Ramachandin arrives at the home under police escort. She is all but comatose but Tyler starts taking care of her and slowly she comes back to life. Two gentlemen bring a slip of a Cereus plant for her and Tyler looks after it and gets the gardener to plant it. Some time later the two men return to visit Mala and Tyler starts to find out more about Mala's life. One of the men is Mala's age. Ambrose (Boyie) was at school with Mala. He made monthly deliveries of food to Mala until he was no longer able to do so. Then his son, Otoh, takes up the task. Ambrose and Otoh visit Mala at the Alms House often and soon Otoh is visiting on his own but he is there to see Tyler.

Sexual roles are fluid in this book; Otoh was actually born a female but he transformed his body to appear male and has passed as male for many years. Tyler is male but likes to wear women's clothing and makeup. Otoh and Tyler are fascinated by each other. However, Tyler is telling Mala's story so he resists adding details about his own life. He hopes that by making Mala's story public he can help find her sister, Asha, who disappeared many years ago. Mala asks continually where she is. This reader hopes that Asha and Mala were finally reunited but that is beyond the purview of this book.

As I said, this was a brilliant book. Highly recommended. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jun 23, 2020 |
This was such a solid read that I paradoxically have very little to say about it.

Cereus blooms at night is the story of Mala Ramchandin, set at various stages during her life, but all in and around the same village. As a semi-senile she is barely tolerated at her nursing home, though one caretaker goes the extra mile and becomes quite close; he is the focalizer of these chapters. Prior to her (forced) admission there, she lived on her own in her family’s dilapidated home, shunned and feared by the village, though a former lover’s son secretly brings her food; he is the window into Mala’s life here. Only as a child is she her own main character, but even then her life is one of generalized abuse lightened by a few individual loves and friendships.

Much of the appeal in this book derives from that tension: a harsh life of poverty, violence, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, bullying, incest, shunning, abandonment and sacrifice made bearable by one or two largely secret friendships. And these happy patches do make things better, though they also make the nearly all-enveloping maltreatment comparatively harsher. Dealing with abuse involves sneaky rebellion, and may take place over a timespan counted in generations rather than years.

Several characters in this book are casually LGBTQ: Mala’s caretaker is gay; her mother runs off with a lesbian lover; her former lover’s son is trans. And by “casually” I mean that their orientation is barely remarked-upon and is not presented as an obstacle or as a conflict-generating device.

I thought this was a pretty good book, and memorable, too, and a very solid read written in beautiful language. ( )
1 vote Petroglyph | Jun 2, 2019 |
This was a fantastic read but at times a very hard one; serious trigger warnings for child abuse (verbal, physical, sexual).

It begins as a beautifully sweet story about racial and sexual and gender identity; about family separations made by force or by choice, and about forbidden liaisons both healthy and unhealthy. Set in the country of Lantanacamara, colonised by the Shivering Northern Wetlands -- more an open code than fantasy countries -- the story focuses on three generations of locals, straight and gay, cis and trans, more and less inculturated by Wetlandish education. The narrator begins by disclaiming any significant role in the story; instantly I want to know more about him, and (though he was right that this is more Mala's story) I was not disappointed.

The main story, switching among its several timelines, grows darker and winds tighter with perfect pacing. Revelations are neither too delayed nor too forced. And as it heads towards the catastrophe we've foreseen, through horror worse than we could have imagined at the start, so it brings us towards its equally inevitable -- and no less satisfying -- eucatastrophe. ( )
  zeborah | Jun 5, 2013 |
A few months ago when I reviewed Shani Mootoo’s most recent novel, Valmiki’s Daughter, I prefaced the review with an admission that I already loved Mootoo’s writing before I even started the book. It was her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), that instigated this love. The worth of something as rich as Cereus would be hard to overestimate. I’ve honestly never read anything that had such a strong sensory effect on me: the lilting rhythm of the language, the bittersweetness of the narrative twists, the tactile images of the natural environment; everything about this novel felt so visceral...

See the rest of my review on my webiste: http://caseythecanadianlesbrarian.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/shani-mootoos-cereus-... ( )
  CaseyStepaniuk | May 19, 2012 |
Truly a work of art. The book is as beautiful as it is horrifying. Like the cereus flower is beautiful and sweet on its dangerous cactus body. It pushes boundaries by making the very strange and the evil part of everyday life, revealing the trauma and horrors that are rampant in Paradise (ironic fictional city). Gender boundaries are masterfully blurred and renegotiated by the troubled characters. A book to pass on, a book to heal others. Some things should not remain silenced. ( )
  clmueller | Dec 3, 2011 |
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When Mala, old and notoriously crazy, arrives at the Paradise Alms House, she is placed in the tender care of Tyler, a gay male nurse, and an extraordinary relationship begins to develop.

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