Lindsey Collen takes social and political issues to a new level in this novel about the rape of a woman and her struggles to overcome it. This novel is packed with references to multi-cultural mythologies and languages and subtleties. There is a definite clash and meshing of cultures all throughout this novel, which takes place primarily on the island Mauritius. The characters are real and down to earth, while at the same time maintaining an aura or essence of myth about them, especially when you come to the point of
learning about the women in Sita’s family.
Part of the charm in this novel, despite its often serious subject matter, is the manner in which Collen decided to narrate it. Instead of just taking the logical route of having Sita relay her own story, and the struggle with regaining the memory of the rape several years after the fact, Collen uses an outside character to communicate the story of Sita’s rape simultaneously to the people of her town as well as the reader. Iqbal, the man that retells Sita’s story, interacts with his audience, both the literary and fictional (though they often blend together throughout the book). He has a disarming honesty about him and I think this really comes through with this refrain that constantly sneaks in on him as he tells the story: Iqbal was a man who thought he was a woman. Over and over, this refrain pops up throughout the ins and outs of the storyline.
Just like the narrator interrupts the story with his thoughts, it is also interrupted by this audience that is listening. They often demand to know certain aspects of the story that seem to have nothing to do with Sita’s rape. Things like who her father is, or they demand a story about a hero, or they want to know how they can trust that the narrator is a reliable source. Let me tell you, it takes awhile to get to the nature of the rape. It’s a curious thing, to want to know the details of something so horrible as a rape. And yet, beginning the novel, knowing that it was about this woman that was raped, all I wanted to know was how it happened and what she has done or is doing to overcome such a violating and invasive act. But don’t be alarmed, because everything you read up to the point of Sita’s rape is preparing you to better understand where all the characters involved are coming from and the different aspects of life that have influenced their actions and reactions throughout the novel.
The intensity of the novel doesn’t solely come from the issue of the rape, but also the social and political unrest within Mauritius and surrounding areas. Sita herself is a part of a Women’s Movement and is very politically involved in her community. One of the major issues that stems from this novel and demands to be addressed is the problem of living in a colonial or post-colonial country. In Mauritius there is a huge variety of languages, religions, races, everything. Throughout the novel there are often foreign words that I had a hard time discerning…some looked like French, others I
had no clue…but this only helped to make the point of how difficult it is to effectively communicate in such a situation.
What I love about this book is its depth and texture, as well as its ability to convey so many intense and heavy ideas, without being overwhelming in any way. At first, it took a little while to adjust to Collen’s unique style of writing and the way in which she chose to convey this story, but once I gathered its momentum, it was an easy read all around. My one minor annoyance with the novel was the manner in which it ended. Not in regards to what Sita chooses to do in reaction to her rape, but how the narrator closes his tale. Iqbal ends the story by thanking Sita’s live-in boyfriend for encouraging him (Iqbal) to be a more active member in the community. Well, I found this a bit of…I dunno… a slap in the face, considering that a huge portion of the novel is dealing with rape and women’s rights. So let’s dedicate this telling of a woman’s rape to a man…why not dedicate it to Sita who encouraged Iqbal as well to utilize his story telling abilities…or maybe I just read that last little page the wrong way. Either way, on the whole I was very satisfied with the novel and as always, I enjoy recommending books, and this one is no exception. It is a great novel if you are interested in multi-cultural readings and socio-political topics. At the same time, it still maintains a personal resonance to it, which allows the reader to feel connected and involved in the story.
Originally Published: 1993
First Feminist Press edition (the one I read): 2004
Category: Fiction/African Studies
*This book was initially banned when it was first published in Mauritius, where the author had been living for several years. One of the primary reasons that the novel was banned, was the fact that it offended the Hindu population with it’s mix of religious figures and stories, and fiction.