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Book Reviews Sabrina Ramnanan’s debut novel, Nothing Like Love, is a whole lot of memorable fun

Title
Nothing Like Love
Author
Sabrina Ramnanan
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Doubleday Canada
Pages
420 pages
Price
$32
Year
2015

Romeo and Juliet has provided inspiration for a multitude of writers ever since Shakespeare set the lovers on their star-crossed path back in the late 16th century. Sabrina Ramnanan, who was born in Toronto to Trinidadian parents, adds laughter, light and spice to her version of the story by setting the tale in a small village in Trinidad in the mid-1970s.

Vimla Narine is a girl who knows what she wants, which includes landing a sought-after teaching position at the local school. Everyone in the community is certain the gig is Vimla's for the taking; she's just passed her exams with flying colours, after all, and there don't seem to be any other candidates to consider. But Vimla has been hiding a secret the residents of Chance would be shocked to discover, and would put her dream job in jeopardy. Between study sessions, she's been seeing a man on the sly, with only her best friend, Minty, privy to their trysts. Not only that, but her paramour, Krishna, is the son of Pundit Anand, the village's holy man, and a patriarch who cares more about the reputation of his family name than the desires of his only son. (Vimla first caught Krishna's eye at a religious festival under rather profane circumstances. Puzzled to see her mouthing the wrong words to prayers "without the slightest inclination of shame," Krishna discovers that Vimla had secreted a tiny periodic table in her sari and "had been committing the elements to memory.")

As the novel begins, Vimla's parents have invited Pundit Anand to their home to conduct a special prayer service. Vimla, however, tempts the divine by scoffing at them. If she succeeds in landing the job, she believes it will be because she's worked hard, not because of any devotions to the deities. Taunting the gods has near immediate consequences. (If this were a Shakespeare play, loud sounds of thunder would be rumbling off-stage.) Her transgressions with Krishna are quickly discovered, and news about her "audacious sacrilege" soon spreads, keeping the town gossips busy for weeks: "That woman straight like a needle and she daughter come out like a fireworks."

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With Vimla's reputation in tatters, she's no longer a suitable wife for a future holy man, so Krishna's father sets about searching for a new, worthy bride for his son. He lands on Chalisa Shankar, an heiress renowned for her beauty, but, like Vimla, a young woman with secrets of her own. Best friend Minty figures out a plan to reunite the lovers, and ropes parrot-toting ladies' man Faizal Mohammed into the scheme. (Faizal, entertainingly, shouts "Mangoes" instead of the more usual expletives, or goes to the extreme of "Mother of mangoes" when things get really serious). But Vimla grows to question Krishna's love. Why is he so reluctant to make a stand for her? Does he truly love her after all? Or has he fallen under the spell of the gorgeous Chalisa?

And that's just some of the goings-on in Nothing But Love. Add in disaffected men who chug a drink infused with marijuana then show up at the local temple clutching kittens (you'll have to read the book to get the whole backstory on that), threats of banishment, hints of blackmail and coercion, tourists looking for lust – er, love – and you have a whole lot of memorable fun in this amusing debut novel.

Ramnanan delights in describing a Trinidad that's vivid and full of colour. Vimla's island home teems with markets where friendly rivals compete for prime market stands over piles of ripe papaya and pumpkins and haggle over the cost of coconuts; citrus-scented groves with fruit-swollen trees where "stippled sunlight fell across the ground like a carpet of stars;" and coasts lined with leafy mangrove trees that hunch "with age toward the rising surf."

But those descriptions, wonderfully evocative as they are, merely set the stage for the exuberant storyline, which Ramnanan imbues with humour and peoples with captivating characters, among the chief pleasures of the novel. They include a number of misaligned couples as star-crossed as Krishna and Vimla, and lovelorn singles watching from the sidelines, yearning for passion of their own. They all speak a language Ramnanan captures beautifully, her ear obviously honed at home. Her writing builds on the tradition of other great Trinidadian-Canadian novelists, including Shani Mootoo, André Alexis and Rabindranath Maharaj, but she sets off down her own path with a charming comedic voice – and the promise of vastly entertaining things to come.

Laurie Grassi is the former books editor at Chatelaine. She can be found at lauriegrassi.com and @LaurieGrassi.

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