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The Rice Mother, by Rani Manicka.

September 15, 2013

The Rice Mother, by Rani Manicka.  Penguin Books (2004), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 464 pages


A family saga set in the Malaya Peninsula about a strong woman and her descendants.

 Lakshmi was born and raised in Ceylon.   At age 14, her mother married her to a man from Malay, today known as Malaysia.  Her mother believed that he had riches enough to keep her secure and happy.  She had been tricked, however, and when Lakshmi arrived in Malay she discovered her new husband was actually poor.  Even worse, he was slow and unattractive to her. Nonetheless, Lakshmi accepted her new life, determined to make the best of it.  In addition to becoming the real power in the household, she bore six children into whom she poured her energy and dreams. Her oldest girl and boy, who were twins, seemed particularly destined for success. Yet the Japanese occupation of the country ended in the death of one of the children and poisoned the family.  None of her children brought her the wealth and success she had anticipated, and the lives of her grandchildren and great-grandchild were even grimmer than her own.

 As one of the characters explains, the rice mother was a revered figure in Bali, worshipped as the Giver of Life.  Certainly Lakshmi was a strong maternal figure who gave willingly to her children.  But she has a darker side as well, something she considers a “monster” inside herself that she cannot stop from hurting those she loves.  As they grow into adults, her children reject her.  The book raises the question of whether her strength has helped or harmed her children. The author says that Lakshmi was modeled on her own “dear grandmother,” but I wondered if her grandmother had the same frightening and cruel character.

Rani Manicka is from Malaysia and writes with knowledge of its culture and folklore. She weaves its mystical and magical elements into her book.  She also displays the ethnic mix of the country.  Her beautiful descriptions reveal her talent.  This is her first book, however, and it has some of the problems typical for beginning writers.  Simply too much was included in the book; too many descriptions, too many events, too many competing plots any one of which could have been developed into a separate novel.

 The Rice Mother is structured into chapters narrated by Lakshmi and her children.  The mix of perspectives works well at first, with the narratives centering on Lakshmi.  But then her children, their spouses, their children take over, pushing Lakshmi aside.  She is barely present in the latter half of the book, and her death is tacked onto a chapter about a granddaughter’s romance.  Her great-granddaughter’s story becomes central in the last part of the book.  Perhaps Manicka is meaning to say that Lakshmi was responsible for the horrible lives her descendants live.  Or maybe she sees the great-granddaughter as redeeming all her relatives.  Much more skilled presentation of a mother’s story told by her adult children is Please Look after Mom, by Korean author Kyŏng-sook Sin. (See my review.)

Despite its flaws, this book would be enjoyed by those interested in Southeast Asia or in family sagas.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2013 9:50 pm

    I’ve become quite fascinated by Malaysia after reading Tan Twan Eng’s books, particularly because of the cultural diversity there. I’ve found it interesting though that most of the Malaysian books I’ve seen focus, like this one, on either members of the Chinese or Indian cultural groups and I haven’t found anything focusing on ethnic Malaysians.

    • September 21, 2013 12:09 pm

      Yes. I am discovering all sorts of interesting diversity in books about Malaysia. And the class and caste patterns of the migrants. I recently reviewed The Earth of Man, set in the Dutch East Indies with the major character of the main ethnic group nearby with similair diversity. An excellent book. (I need to go back and correct some blogs I did where I mixed up what was Malayasia and what was Indonesia.)
      Actually I am discovering that many places have more diverse populations than I had imagined. Before I started reading globally, I sort of assumed that other countries were neat and homogenous–as if nobody had traveled until “we” arrived. But that is simply not the case. Workers as well as colonizers migrated–or were migrated. Indians in Africa, Germans in Peru.
      Have you read Before European Hegemony? It is about the pre-colonial trade routes. Very good and readable and explains something of why such diversity has always been around. Actually Malayasia was a key point on the east-west shipping routes which probably created some of that diversity.

  2. September 22, 2013 8:22 pm

    Oh, that’s a very interesting point. I had indeed implicitly assumed that the Indian and Chinese populations arose during the colonial era. But Wikipedia tells me that they date back to the 1st century AD. Wow.

    Obviously I haven’t read Before European Hegemony!

    • September 24, 2013 12:49 pm

      More came then. The problem I see is that none of the realities of the rest the rest of the world ever got taught to any of us. I certainly never was told any of this–not even in grad school. I just learn about these histories last year. That needs to change–and that is why our reviews of non-western books matter.

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