Cereus Blooms at Night

In CEREUS BLOOMS AT NIGHT, author Shani Mootoo creates a small society on a tiny island in the Caribbean. The narrative’s frame comes from a gay male nurse at the Paradise Alms House, who performs good deeds (knowing they will not go unpunished) for a difficult old crazy woman named Mala Ramchandin. She is an outcast like himself. Who the lady is and how she came to be imprisoned in the makeshift hospital constitutes the heart of the story.

Mala’s father dared to fall in love with a white woman. Adopted by the island’s white minister, he experiences, in the most brutally direct way, the dislocation and alienation of simultaneously being and not being a member of a condescending, utterly seductive white European family. His love for his “sister” and his ostensible equal is not only not reciprocated but also so disapproved of as to nearly cause a complete ostracism from the family, whose liberality has its limits.

Still in love with his adoptive sister, Mala’s father marries a woman more proper to his station. When she leaves him for the woman he loves, he turns into an alcoholic monster who enslaves, sexually and otherwise, the two little girls who are left behind and whose presence remind him of his humiliation and betrayal. In a plot twist reminiscent of Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE (1982), one of the sisters escapes, sending letters back to her sister that the father intercepts. The other sister stays, enduring her father’s abuse for years, until, after he frightens away her one promising suitor, she explodes into the madness that haunts her for the rest of her life.

After the aged Mala is judged mentally unfit, she is sent to the Paradise Alms House. Fate has some kindness in store for her at last, however. In addition to the care of the nurse, she receives visits from her former suitor, and her nearly lifelong nightmare begins to wane.