Like Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Rabindranath Maharaj's latest novel welds island history, folklore and the vernacular of comics to New World immigrant experience. The immigrant novel remains a staple of Canadian literature for the simple reason that it continues to hold relevance. We are - as we like to say - a nation of immigrants. However, some of us are perceived as more immigrant than others. As a result, writers of black and Caribbean heritage are uniquely positioned to describe our most salient trait. What's more, their characters often explore what it means to be Canadian; they are preoccupied with questions of national identity that have obsessed us since Confederation.
In works like The Interloper and The Lagahoo's Apprentice, the Trinidadian-born Maharaj applies his unique sensibility and blend of genres to the immigrant story. In The Amazing Absorbing Boy, he charts the vicissitudes of a Trinidadian teenager who moves to Toronto to live with his estranged father. Sam grows up ensconced in the fishing village of Mayaro. His world is defined by his mother, a seamstress; his uncle, the proprietor of a convenience shop; and his stern, religious aunt. Sam and his friends skip school to listen to the fishermen's tall tales. They play cricket and devour comic books. One friend, Loykie, suffers from a horrible skin disease and lives, ostracized, in the forest. Loykie's favourite comic hero is Amazing Man, who transforms into any substance he touches, while Sam's favourite is Absorbing Man, who possesses similar powers.
Sam's father abandoned the family years before. After his mother dies, Sam is sent to live with him in Canada. It is not the happy reunion of his dreams. Sam's father lives in poverty in Regent Park, a run-down Toronto neighbourhood. He is unwelcoming and emotionally abusive. Quite unbelievably, he abandons Sam all over again, leaving him alone day after day to feed and fend for himself. To help make sense of frightening and unfamiliar circumstances, Sam draws upon the world of comics. His superheroes inspire him with courage to move forward in a strange new land.
As usual, Maharaj experiments with genre and form. This novel incorporates elements of the comic book and graphic novel. Sketches in bubbles float on the opening page of every chapter. And as with comics, some passages present the protagonist in his conventional life, while others depict him in his encounter with foils.
Unlike Diaz, Maharaj does not fuse island patois and graphic culture to improvise a dizzy new language. The references sometimes appear as clever metaphors, rather than insights emerging from the Sam's love of comics. Still, Maharaj does offer an exhilarating interpretation of immigrant experience.
Sam's forays out of Regent Park bring him in contact with a wild assortment of individuals. The city's surprising racial mix reminds him of Port of Spain. The subway ignites his imagination: He sees transit riders as moles engaged in underground political activities. At a coffee shop, he meets the frightening man who threatened to pull out his father's teeth, and a grotesque figure trails him through the library as he looks into citizenship and college.
But Maharaj's oddball Canadian characters do not delight half so much as Sam's Trinidadian relatives: his aunt, whose deadly umbrella and formidable Presbyterian hymns serve equally as weapons, and his flamboyantly attired Uncle Boysie. Boysie arrives in Canada with $1,000 to finance Sam's education. This is Maharaj's response to a common misapprehension, that islanders who emigrate necessarily fare better than those who remain behind. Maharaj superbly articulates the longing for home, on the one hand, and the dream of success in Canada on the other.
Most of the novel's conversation about race and immigration unfolds through thought and dialogue rather than dramatic action. This means that even the truest ideals sometimes come across as clichéd or pedantic. Maharaj's greatest achievements lie in his glistening, jewel-like depiction of Mayaro and his striking portrait of Sam. Sam is an ordinary, nice kid, resourceful and quietly determined, absorbing everything around him, eager to listen and learn. He is just one of the amazing, absorbing boys - and girls - who now call Canada home.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.