There is nothing new about a storyline that takes a woman with no education, no experience in the world who winds up either a widow or with a wastrel husband, a brood and no means of support for her family. It's been done by male and female writers, it's been played out in every possible kind of setting and time period from ancient Roman households to Mayberry. So as an author if you're going to take that crumbly old plot and make it the center of your novel you had better be able to pony up some good writing to make it palatable. In the novel,
The Rice Mother, author Rani Manicka does just that.
Lakshmi is the Mother in this multi-generational story. In the early 1920's she is married off and leaves her native Ceylon with her husband, Ayah, for Maylasia. Once in Maylaysia Lakshmi learns that her 37 year old husband had borrowed a gold watch and a servant in order to convince her Mother that he was rich and marry her. In reality he's a clerk who lives a hand to mouth existence. However what's done is done. She is now a fourteen year old wife, housekeeper and stepmother. It isn't long before it's clear to Lakshmi that although Ayah is basically a good man and loves her that he is incapable of supporting them. By the time she turns nineteen, Lakshmi has in quick succession given birth to six children. It is only her sheer force of will that keeps her family together. For the family the worst is yet to come with WWII and the occupation by the Japanese. It is a brutal and faith testing time that leaves them scarred forever.
Although larger than life as all matriarchs are in these kinds of novels, Lashmi is a believably flawed person. Her evolution from happy teenager daydreaming about her future to an embittered, hard, angry, able to make the tough decisions that may cost her children's love woman is honestly depicted through her experiences and circumstances. Author Manicka moves the novel forward through Lakshmi, her children and her grandchildren with mutilate family members (living and deceased) taking their turn telling the story. The characters limited choices, weaknesses and their temptations are successfully detailed against fifty years of Malaysian history.
The Rice Mother is a big novel with some first time novelist missteps. The book is a little too cluttered with sometimes too convenient plot twists and one or two of the characters are cartoonish in their evilness. That said it is also a well written, interesting dissection of a world and a time that most of us know little about. Manicka's obvious knowledge of and affection for the culture and beauty of Maylasia is evident throughout the book. The Rice Mother is a journey into a family whose difficult lives and small victories enrich the rest of us.