“During our lives, we struggle to forget. And it’s foolish to assume that forgetting is altogether a bad thing. Memory is a bruise still tender. History is a rusted pile of blades and manacles. And forgetting can sometimes be the most creative and life-sustaining thing that we can ever hope to accomplish. The problem happens when we get too good at forgetting.”
I am somewhat undecided about this book. David Chariandy’s Soucouyant is a beautifully poetic narrative of a young man from Scarborough and his mother, who is suffering from dementia. There are absolutely stunning moments in this novel, but overall I did not really get into the story.
In this novel, the young man (whose name we do not learn) returns home after several years to find his mother, Adele, in the grips of severe dementia. He is surprised to find a young woman – a complete stranger – living in his home and caring for his mother in his absence. As the story unravels, we learn about the boy’s past and that of his mother and father, both of whom emigrated from Trinidad to Canada in the early 1960s. We also learn about the mysterious young woman, Meera, who has inhabited the narrator’s childhood home, and the complicated ways in which her own history in connected to that of the narrator’s family.
The most striking thing about this novel is the writing. Chariandy writes with such lyricism and rhythm that I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and then being able, in good conscience, to declare that they do not like it. I especially enjoyed the way Chariandy managed to mimic the disorientation that we might imagine Adele is feeling as a result of her dementia. At the very start of this novel, the reader arrives suddenly, like the narrator, in a confusing and unexplained situation. This technique is used again and again throughout this story to reflect the experience of losing the ability to remember where you are, who is around you and even who you are. Similarly, Chariandy uses a largely fragmented narrative to depict the disjointed nature of memories – even those we are still able to recover. Small bits and pieces lead to larger revelations, and while we might begin with only a small a hint of something past, we eventually unravel the story of Adele and the Soucouyant (popular in Caribbean folklore, she is a female, vampire-like spirit who disguises herself as an old woman).
This novel also places a heavy focus on stories of immigration that do not match that of the “ideal” or “model” immigrant. Intentionally discussing often forgotten histories – such as the 1955 West Indian Domestic Scheme, which allowed Adele to travel to Canada, or Canada’s 1988 Multiculturalism Act – Chariandy addresses the experiences of the “other” in my native Toronto, which is a place so often praised for its multiculturalism. One of the most poignant moments of this entire novel for me was Adele’s experience with lemon meringue pie. Without giving away the plot, I will only say that Adele describes her first taste of the pie as a “twoness”: both sweet and sharp. Chariandy continually returns to this metaphor to discuss the feelings of tension often felt by immigrants who simultaneously feel grateful for the opportunity they have been given and lonely or angered as the result of the unfriendly responses they routinely receive from natives of the country to which they travel.
Overall, I thought this was a beautifully written novel, but it was a bit slow moving to suit my own taste. I liked the mysterious aspects of the book with Meera, the narrator’s brother and the story of the Soucouyant but, otherwise, I found the plot to be a bit stagnant at times. In terms of the characters, while I did not feel particularly warm to the narrator, I did like some of the other characters in this novel much more. I was unsure about Meera at first, but she did grow on me (somewhat) over the course of the story. The characters that made the book more enjoyable for me were Roger and Adele, and the librarian, Mrs. Cameron. The story of how Adele and Roger met brings a smile to my face every time I think of it and the kind, caring librarian whose friendship touches the narrator so profoundly remains absolutely beautiful to me.
My few minor quibbles aside, Soucouyant is an eerie and haunting – but precisely told – story of family, memory and love. Most of all, I love the way the story portrays the things we remember and those we forget and the implications this can have not only on our personal lives but also on the collective histories of our cultures and countries.