Dear Death

Written by Frank Birbalsingh for Indo-Caribbean World on

Dear Death is a promising first novel by Indo-Guyanese author Sasenarine Persaud, who now lives in Toronto. Peepal Tree Press should be congratulated for yet another title in their series on Indo-Caribbean writing, and Persaud for a title that helps to swell the rather slender supply of fictional works on Indo-Guyanese - the largest Indian community in the Caribbean.

The novel contains much local colour about all aspects of Indo-Guyanese society, including the educational system, religious festivals, domestic routine, superstition, and the pervasive male pastime of rum drinking. But Dear Death is not a mere catalogue of social customs: its main interest is in the inner lives of characters who appear to be touched, even circumscribed by a spirituality over which they seem to have little control.

The boy narrator, Dalip, describes his early childhood experiences at home and school, and evokes a realistic portrait of Indo-Guyanese childhood and adolescence. We learn about family relationships, his academic efforts, school escapades, and his earliest, clumsy efforts at love making. In the end, Dalip passes the Ordinary Level school examination and appears set for higher studies and a profession. If this were all, Dear Death would provide a routine catalogue of surface events in Indo-Guyanese experience; but as the title itself suggests, the novel focuses on the mystery of death. In a short space of time, there are four deaths in the novel; first the narrator’s aunt Coreen; then his mother; a ‘cha cha’ (uncle) and finally his brother Roy. Since these deaths are not explained, they evoke a Gothic atmosphere of the supernatural having a close effect on real life, and sometimes posing a threat. This is exactly the atmosphere in many stories and novels by Edgar Mittelholzer, the ‘doyen’ of Guyanese novelists. It calls for some technical skill to create the tension and suspense that are essential to this atmosphere:

Then he heard something else. Someone seemed to push open the door to his bedroom... Then the person - he was convinced it was someone - stepped onto the bed. The springs of the mattress creaked. (p. 72)

We are led to believe that this ghostly visitor is the spirit of Dalip’ s mother. In any case, Dalip is later taken to a Hindu priest, who carries out a sort of exorcism, after which he receives no more such visits and stops having nightmares.

Persaud’s writing consists of short sentences, unembellished descriptions, and a narrative whose very compactness heightens its dramatic quality. The incident of the parrot that lets out profanities in church, in front of the congregation, suggests an anecdotal facility which might serve the author well in the future. There are also all too brief sections of dialogue to which the dialect lends extra vigour and correctness. Both the dialect and dialogue are under-used resources that the author might put to better effect next time. For the moment, though, one can agree that the dark Gothic atmosphere of Dear Death successfully evokes the bleak living conditions and limited opportunities that surround the narrator throughout his school career. In doing this, Dear Death announces itself as a notable addition to the growing number of fictional portraits of Indo-Guyanese life being produced by authors such as Cyril Dabydeen, Rooplall Monar and Arnold Itwaru. Along with Sasenarine Persaud, these authors are worthy successors to a literary tradition established by Rajkumarie Singh, Sheik Sadeek and Lauchmonen who were among the first to present Indo-Guyanese life in the form of novels and stories.