The Rice Mother is a sprawling intergenerational family saga set in Malaysia, spanning over decades of intrigue and trauma. The story’s linchpin character and tainted heroine of sorts, is Lakshmi. We enter a mystical yet visceral world of her many children (and their children ) and how they grapple with unending tragedies. Rape, doomed arranged marriages, emotionally unstable in-laws, war, suicides and addictions are just a brief litany of calamities that the reader witnesses in this richly detailed and lyrical novel. The story blends the spiritual and the ethereal with the banalities and violence of daily life. Seeing the dead and family curses are interspersed with the harsh realities of the Japanese invasion and grinding poverty.
The kind of detail the author deftly employs is not the verbal diarrhea of information I find in some long, involved books. Rani Manicka, the author, uses detail that captivates and places the reader at the heart of the unfolding event in a way that sears it in to memory. There are scenes that I still remember days after finishing the book. One such scene shows Lakshmi viciously throwing a thorn covered durian fruit at her daughter in a fit of rage. She describes her feelings of inadequacy, jealousy and underappreciation that sparked the disproportionate reaction to a rather petty incident. The shocked silence of the family members at that display of uncalled for brutality and yet their ability to forget and act like it never happened is what gives this scene its richness. You feel the tension vibrating in the air, you almost hear the whizzing sound as the durian dangerously misses Anna’s head, you see it quiver, embedded in the wall. And most importantly, this short scene retold by Lakshmi herself explains why I call her a tainted heroine. Lakshmi is the gravitational pull on every other being. She in turns exhibits fierce strength, love and kindness, yet inexplicable cruelty and meanness. She is the Rice Mother who always gives and always sacrifices yet is always tragically disappointed and let down.
Although it would appear that I loved this book because of its exceptional character development and how it stirred my emotions (I actually teared up at the dying words of a specific character- for me to cry requires a book to really grow on me) I still hesitate to give The Rice Mother a glowing review. My rating of 3.7 is because I found something lacking especially towards the end of the book, when the reader is plunged (I think rather abruptly) into the story of Dimple and Nisha the granddaughter and great granddaughter of Lakshmi. Their calamities and personalities don’t seem as riveting without Lakshmi at its center. In the first two thirds of the book we are in Lakshmi’s gravitational pull, even if a chapter is being told from the various perspectives of Lakshmi’s family members. In the era of Dimple and her daughter Nisha, something is lost- the magical, the surrealistic, the feeling of being completely immersed in Lakshmi’s disappointments. I think I would have enjoyed it much more if the story followed Lakshmi until her end, since she is the essence of the novel and cannot be overshadowed.