Sumedha Iyer reviews Home After Dark by Kavita Nandan
by Kavita Nandan
USP Press. Fiji
Reviewed by SUMEDHA IYER
Early in Kavita Nandan’s Home After Dark, the protagonist Kamini meets V.S. Naipaul and tells him that A House for Mr. Biswas is her favourite book. He asks her where she is from; when she says she is Fijian, he simply says “Ah, that’s why you like the book.” This congruence between Fiji and Trinidad, two island nations that were former British colonies, is deeply frustrating to Kamini: “Yet we knew very little about the specifics of each other’s lives, content to exist in our separate worlds.” The protagonist’s deliberation on the specificity of postcolonial experience seems indicative that this is something that Nandan’s novel aspires to.
If J.M Coetzee’s assertion that “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography” is true, then it finds especial resonance with Home After Dark. The novel reads as though there is a lot of the author’s own life being traced out in the narrative. On paper, there are elements of Nandan’s life that are in common with the novel’s protagonist. Nandan has spent her life between Australia, Fiji and India, and she is also an academic. But the synonymy between Nandan’s biographic details and the narrative plotted out for Kamini are not of themselves interesting. Nandan’s storytelling skill relies on the weaving together of various cultural, personal and geographic spaces and endowing them with engaging detail, and she does this well.
The initial chapters lay a strong foundation for the rest of the novel, and the novel begins with an arresting incident: Kamini recounts choking on her own mother’s milk as a child in Delhi. Ironically, her rescuer in this instance turns out to be the very same man who takes her father hostage in Fiji eighteen years later. The details of her father’s imprisonment during the Fijian coup of 1987 are skilfully woven together with the young Kamini’s intimate experiences of home and anxieties about her life outside of it. There is a lot for Kamini to take in. The violence that her father is subject to in the coup is painful to contemplate, and is coupled with the unnerving distractedness of her family in light of the situation. Nandan cites Yeats to capture the sudden reality that is thrust upon Kamini as she enters adulthood: ‘the centre cannot hold ‘. In describing the new found chaos of Kamini’s life, Nandan makes implicit the previous part of this line in Yeats’ poem – ‘things fall apart;’.
After Kamini’s formative experiences are described the main story arc is introduced. The middle thirds of the novel mainly moves between her relationship with her family and her relationship with her Australian husband, Gavin. When she moves to Fiji she is happy to be among her relatives, and finds a comfortable place in their lives. Within these familial spaces she is able to sift through the various pieces of her past. These parts of the novel make for deeply satisfying reading. Nandan deftly draws small incidents so they have symbolic significance: “If I saw a coconut lying at the bottom of one of the trees, I called out to my father so he could slice through the husk to reach its heart… I was eager to replace my small island for the vast unknown world. But only when I thought I had the luxury of possession.” This movement outwards from metaphor to broader postcolonial implications gives the story specificity in the nexus of place, culture and experience.
Ultimately though, the novel moves to a crescendo along the narrative lines of her relationship with Gavin, and for this reason it warrants some unpacking. The reason why Kamini moves to Fiji is primarily for an academic position, and she brings Gavin with her. However, Kamini’s relationship with Gavin is far from ideal. The emotional isolation that her relationship with Gavin threatens to cause is brought in contrast with the support that she gets from her family. Gavin has been unemployed and suffers from depression. After initially being enamoured with the newness of Fijian life and the sights of Suva he becomes bored, and his unhappiness becomes even more apparent.
The confidence of Nandan’s lyrical prose and weighty metaphor gives way to a different style of writing. Nandan’s rendering of Gavin is still highly detailed, but they are also matter-of-fact, more quotidian than flowery: “[h]e had packed two pairs of shorts, three T-shirts, a Sydney FC jumper, a grey cosmetic bag with toothpaste smeared on the zipper, his medications and the adoption folder in its special plastic casing.” But these unadorned descriptions are no less interesting than the lush imagery that Nandan deploys in relation to her family and past. Nandan simultaneously sketches Gavin’s low emotional ebb and Kamini’s ambivalence towards him. Revulsion, pathos and love move together with breathtaking economy as Nandan describes the inner world of Kamini and Gavin. Although less assured than Nandan’s writing on Kamini’s family and childhood, Kamini and Gavin’s fragile emotional world is just as engaging.
The book ends a little hurriedly; Nandan ties together the loose ends of the Fiji-oriented plot too quickly as she tries to circle back to the themes that she began with. It is as if the novel has taken a long walk in a particular direction before trying to rush back to the point of origin along the very same route. The novel could be a little longer; after taking the time to go along with Nandan’s unpacking of various geographic places, relationships and cultural spaces it isn’t unreasonable for the novel to take a little more time to reach its conclusion.
But the slightly abrupt ending is not nearly enough to take away from the joy of reading Home After Dark. As Nandan deftly ties together various aspects of Kamini’s reality – the everyday, the intimate, the cultural and political – what comes through is an imaginatively complete novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.
SUMEDHA IYER is a PhD candidate in English at the University of New South Wales. Her thesis examines works of contemporary Australian fiction in terms of multiculturalism and transnation.