The Caribbean town of Marasaw is home to young Navi and Neela, whose mother must leave to find employment in the West—as a child minder. That bleak irony sets the tone for Toronto-based Andrea Gunraj’s promising novel The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha.
Brother and sister grow up competing for attention under their grandmother’s care, longing to escape each other and Marasaw. While math prodigy Navi wins an academic scholarship, Neela spurns family and her friends to elope with local bad boy Jaroon to a tourist resort “Eden” in the rainforest.
The Caribbean is considered a tourist paradise, but, asks Gunraj, what is the cost to the locals? Eden proves anything but idyllic, for corruption breeds at the heart of the enterprise. Neela, who planned to be a school teacher, discovers that the school building comprises four sticks on a concrete slab, that she won’t be paid for her work, and that there’s no going back to Marasaw. Inevitably, Jaroon prospers amidst such lawlessness, and an isolated Neela begins to face his abuse. Gunraj searingly describes the powerlessness and humiliation experienced by victims of domestic violence; Neela, slapped by Jaroon, feels thrust into “that clumsy, in-between condition of part-child, part woman, foolish and slighted and put in her place.”
When Jaroon spirits away their baby daughter Seetha, Neela must look for help to the family and friends she’d discarded. The search for Seetha provides the note of suspense in this story.
Gunraj, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Guyana, deals with (other) weighty themes (including racism and the bitter after-taste of colonialism) in this layered tale, but the most intriguing aspect for me was Neela’s mysterious magic. Neela has a gift, passed down the maternal line, which enables her to influence events as she desires. This power however deserts her when she moves to Eden. Gunraj provides no explanation for this loss; and my guess is that Neela’s thoughtlessness in abandoning her family and friends killed her abilities, for this sort of power must come from a place of goodness and positivity if it is to flourish. And if my solution doesn’t quite cut it for you, well, this rich text gives you plenty to form an alternate theory. Gunraj is one of Knopf’s “New Faces of Fiction” for 2009; well chosen, I say!
(A slightly modified version of this piece appears in Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.)
The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009