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Evening Is the Whole Day: A Novel

Evening Is the Whole Day: A Novel

3.7 8
by Preeta Samarasan

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Set in Malaysia, this spellbinding and already internationally acclaimed debut introduces us to the prosperous Rajasekharan family as its closely guarded secrets are slowly peeled away.

When Chellam, the family’s rubber-plantation-bred servant girl, is dismissed for unnamed crimes, her banishment is the latest in a series of recent, precipitous losses that


Set in Malaysia, this spellbinding and already internationally acclaimed debut introduces us to the prosperous Rajasekharan family as its closely guarded secrets are slowly peeled away.

When Chellam, the family’s rubber-plantation-bred servant girl, is dismissed for unnamed crimes, her banishment is the latest in a series of recent, precipitous losses that have shaken six-year-old Aasha’s life. A few short weeks before, Aasha’s grandmother Paati passed away under mysterious circumstances and her older sister, Uma, departed for Columbia University—leaving Aasha alone to cope with her mostly absent father, her bitter mother, and her imperturbable older brother.

Beginning with Aasha’s grandfather’s ascension from Indian coolie to illustrious resident of the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, and going on to tell the story of how Appa, the family’s Oxford-educated patriarch, courted Amma, the humble girl next door, Evening Is the Whole Day moves gracefully backward and forward in time to answer the many questions that haunt the family: What was Chellam’s unforgivable crime? Why was Uma so intent on leaving? How and why did Paati die? What did Aasha see? And, underscoring all of these mysteries: What ultimately became of Appa’s once-grand dreams for his family and his country?
Sweeping in scope, sumptuously lyrical, and masterfully constructed, Evening Is the Whole Day offers an unflinching look at relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, the wealthy and the poor, a country and its citizens—and the ways in which each sometimes fails the other. Illuminating in heartbreaking detail one Indian immigrant family’s secrets and lies while exposing the complex underbelly of Malaysia itself, Preeta Samarasan’s debut is a mesmerizing and vital achievement sure to earn her a place alongside Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Zadie Smith.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“... a surpassingly wise and beautiful debut novel about the tragic consequences of the inability to love.” Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

"(a) delicious first novel...Samarasan's fabric is gorgeous. Her ambitious spiraling plot, her richly embroidered prose, her sense of place, and her psychological acuity are stunning. Readers, responding to the setting, will immediately compare her to Kiran Desai. I think Smarasan's dialogue and description are reminiscent of Eudora Welty, another woman who knew how to write about family and race and class and secrets and heat." The New York Times Book Review

Allegra Goodman
This is not a claustrophobic family drama but a continually unfolding mystery, in which the reader follows each character down dark, winding passageways into hidden rooms, walled gardens and beyond to view a complex society in which Malay, Indian and Chinese coexist and chafe against one another after the end of British colonial rule…even if the seams don't match perfectly, Samarasan's fabric is gorgeous. Her ambitious spiraling plot, her richly embroidered prose, her sense of place, and her psychological acuity are stunning. Readers, responding to the setting, will immediately compare her to Kiran Desai. I think Samarasan's dialogue and description are reminiscent of Eudora Welty, another woman who knew how to write about family and race and class and secrets and heat.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Set on the outskirts of Ipoh in Malaysia, Samarasan's impressive debut chronicles another bad year in the Big House on Kingfisher Lane. With the death of Paati, the grandmother, and the disgraceful departure of Chellam, the family's servant girl, the wealthy Rajasekharan family is in shambles. Skillfully jumping from one consciousness to another, Samarasan moves back in time to reveal the secrets that have led to the family's unraveling. Father Raju's dreams have been stifled by his unrealized political ambitions, and his home life is no consolation. Vasanthi, his wife, bristles at reminders of her lower-class roots and wouldn't mind seeing Uma, their oldest daughter, "destroyed by an endless string of disappointments." Uma all but disconnects herself from the family in anticipation of escaping to Columbia University, and her six-year-old sister, Aasha, whose desire to recapture Uma's love is a primary focus of the book, must settle for interactions with a ghost only she can see. There's little familial tenderness, and the few instances of compassion displayed (by Raju's visiting brother) are mistaken as perverse. Though the narrative is occasionally unwieldy or claustrophobic, the language bursts with energy, and Samarasan has a sure hand juggling so many distinct characters. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This beautifully written debut novel revolves around a wealthy Indian family living in modern-day Malaysia. What seems like a simple act-the firing of the servant girl-has greater implications for the family than it could ever have imagined, especially for six-year-old Aasha. Aasha has a secret, one that could devastate not only her family but also the entire community. Samarasan wisely withholds this secret and others, pulling readers in. Because the description of Malaysia and its diverse population is so achingly lyrical, readers will want to slow down to absorb each word; at other times, as when they get caught up in the family drama, they will want to quicken their pace. This book is destined to be highly sought after by fans of Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy. Translation rights have at the time of this writing been sold in 14 territories, and national advertising is planned. Highly recommended for public libraries.
—Marika Zemke

Kirkus Reviews
A complex web of public and private histories shared by an Indian immigrant family is painstakingly examined in the ambitious first novel from Malaysia native Samarasan. The Rajasekharans, heirs to a commercial fortune dominated by a successful rubber plantation, seem blessed. Patriarch Raju is a prominent attorney; his beautiful wife Vasanthi has risen far above her humble origins; their brilliant and beautiful eldest daughter Uma is on her way to a prestigious American university (in 1980, when the story's major actions occur), and her younger brother Suresh and sister Aasha seem gifted and responsible enough to emulate the much-admired Uma. But secrets lurk in the Big House on Kingfisher Lane, where Uma's imminent departure is overshadowed by the suspicious death of her paternal grandmother ("Paati"), as well as the dismissal (for undisclosed reasons) of house servant girl Chellam-whose dirt-poor family provides a counterpoint to the privileged lives of her employers. Six-year-old Aasha communes matter-of-factly with her family's ghosts (including that of the outraged Paati). And Aasha's dreamlike discoveries are deftly paralleled by lengthy flashbacks which reveal-with both considerable skill and wearying overemphasis-guilty burdens borne by the ambitious Raju (who seems to have everything and wants even more); both Vasanthi and Paati, each of whom has overstepped marital boundaries; the ever-embittered Chellam; and-a late-arriving yet crucial character-black-sheep "Uncle Ballroom" (Balu), a pathetic underachiever inhibited by all he knows and cannot reveal. Samarasan has probably attempted too much in this overstuffed debut. But she scores impressively with the creation of anintimate, gossipy omniscient narrative voice that's the perfect vehicle for her slowly unfolding, intricately layered story. Agent: Ayesha Pande/Lyons & Pande

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

September 6, 1980

There is, stretching delicate as a bird’s head from the thin neck of the Kra Isthmus, a land that makes up half of the country called Malaysia. Where it dips its beak into the South China Sea, Singapore hovers like a bubble escaped from its throat. This bird’s head is a springless summerless autumnless winterless land. One day might be a drop wetter or a mite drier than the last, but almost all are hot, damp, bright, bursting with lazy tropical life, conducive to endless tea breaks and mad, jostling, honking rushes through town to get home before the afternoon downpour. These are the most familiar rains, the violent silver ropes that flood the playing fields and force office workers to wade to bus stops in shoes that fill like buckets. Blustering and melodramatic, the afternoon rains cause traffic jams at once terrible—choked with the black smoke of lorries and the screeching brakes of schoolbuses—and beautiful: aglow with winding lines of watery yellow headlights that go on forever, with blue streetlamps reflected in burgeoning puddles, with the fluorescent melancholy of empty roadside stalls. Every day appears to begin with a blaze and end with this deluge, so that past and present and future run together in an infinite, steaming river.
     In truth, though, there are days that do not blaze and rains less fierce. Under a certain kind of mild morning drizzle the very earth breathes slow and deep. Mist rises from the dark treetops on the limestone hills outside Ipoh town. Grey mist, glowing green hills: on such mornings it is obvious how sharply parts of this land must have reminded the old British rulers of their faraway country.
     To the north of Ipoh, clinging to the outermost hem of the town’s not-so-voluminous outskirts, is Kingfisher Lane, a long, narrow line from the "main" road (one corner shop, one bus stop, occasional lorries) to the limestone hills (ancient, inscrutable, riddled with caves and illegal cave dwellers). Here the town’s languid throng feels distant even on hot afternoons; on drizzly mornings like this one it is absurd, improbable. The smoke from the cement factories and the sharp odors of the pork van and the fish vendor are washed away before they can settle, but the moist air traps native sounds and smells: the staticky songs of one neighbor’s radio, the generous sweet spices of another’s simmering mutton curry. The valley feels cloistered and coddled. A quiet benevolence cups the morning in its palm.
     In 1980 the era of sale-by-floorplan and overnight housing developments is well under way, but the houses on Kingfisher Lane do not match one another. Some are wide and airy, with verandas in the old Malay fashion. A few weakly evoke the splendor of Chinese towkays’ Penang mansions with gate-flanking dragons and red-and-gold trim. Most sit close to the lane, but one or two are set farther back, at the ends of gravel driveways. About halfway down the lane, shielded by its black gates and its robust greenery, is the Big House, number 79, whose bright blue bulk has dominated Kingfisher Lane since it was an unpaved track with nothing else along it but saga trees. Though termites will be discovered, in a few weeks, to have been secretly devouring its foundation for years (and workmen will be summoned to an urgent rescue mission), the Big House stands proud. It has presided over the laying of all the others’ foundations. It has witnessed their slow aging, their repaintings and renovations. Departures, deaths, arrivals.
     This morning, after only a year at the Big House, Chellam the no- longer- new-servant is leaving. Four people strain to believe that the fresh weather augurs not only neat closure, but a new beginning. Clean slates and cleaner consciences. Surely nothing undertaken today will come to a bad end; surely all’s well with the world.
     Chellam is eighteen years old, the same age as Uma, the oldest- eldest daughter of the house. Only one week ago today, Uma boarded a Malaysian Airline System aeroplane bound for New York America USA, where it is now autumn. Also known as fall in America. She left behind her parents, her eleven-year-old brother Suresh, and little Aasha, only six, whose heart cracked and cried out in protest. Today the four of them thirstily drink the morning’s grey damp to soothe their various doubts about the future.
     The aeroplane that carried Uma away was enormous and white, with a moonkite on its tail, whereas Chellam is leaving on foot (and then by bus).
     She differs from Uma in many other, equally obvious, ways. A growth spurt squandered eating boiled white rice sprinkled—on good days—with salt has left her a full head shorter than Uma; her calves are as thin as chicken wings and her skin is pockmarked from the crawling childhood diseases her late mother medicated with leafy pastes and still-warm piss furtively collected in a tin pail as it streamed from the neighbors’ cow. Severe myopia has crumpled her face into a permanent squint, and her shoulders are as narrow as the acute triangle of her world: at one corner the toddy shop from which she dragged her drunken father home nightly as a child; at another the dim, sordid alley in which she stood with other little girls, their eyelids dark with kajal, their toenails bright with Cutex, waiting to be picked up by a lorry driver or a bottle-shop man so that they could earn their two ringgit. At the third and final corner stands Ipoh, the town to which she was brought by some bustling, self-righteous Hindu Sangam society matron eager to rack up good karma by plucking her from prostitution and selling her into a slavery far less white; Ipoh, where, after two-three years (no one could say exactly) of working for friends of Uma’s parents, Chellam was handed down to the Big House. "We got her used," Suresh had said with a smirk (dodging his Amma’s mouthslap, which had been offhand at best, since Chellam hadn’t been there to take offense).
     And today they’re sending her back. Not just to the Dwivedis’, but all the way back. Uma’s Appa ordered Chellam’s Appa to collect her today; neither of them could have predicted the inconvenient drizzle. Father to father, (rich) man to (poor) man, they have agreed that Chellam will be ready at such-and-such a time to be met by her Appa and led from the Big House all the way up the unpaved, rock-and-clay length of Kingfisher Lane to the bus stop on the main road, and from there onto the bus to Gopeng, and from the Gopeng bus station down more roads and more lanes until she arrives back at square minus one, the one-room hut in the red-earth village whence she emerged just a few years ago.
     A year from today, Chellam will be dead. Her father will say she committed suicide after a failed love affair. The villagers will say he beat her to death for bringing shame to her family. Chellam herself will say nothing. She will have cried so much by then that the children will have nicknamed her Filthyface for her permanent tear stains. All the women of the village won’t be able to wash those stains off her cold face, and when they cremate her, the air will smell salty from all those tears.
     At twenty to ten on this September Saturday morning, she begins to drag her empty suitcase down the stairs from the storeroom where it has lived since she came a year ago. "How long ago did your Appa tell her to start packing?" Amma mutters. "Didn’t we give her a month’s notice? So much time she had, and now she’s bringing her bag down to start!"
     But Chellam’s suitcase, unlike Uma’s, could never have taken a month to pack. Uma had been made to find space for all these: brand-new wool sweaters, panties with the price tags still on, blazers for formal occasions, authentic Malaysian souvenirs for yet-unmade friends, batik sarongs and coffee-table books with which to show off her culture, framed family portraits taken at Ipoh’s top studio, extra film for a latest-model camera. Chellam owns, not including what she’s wearing today, a single chiffon saree, three T-shirts (one free with Horlicks, one free with Milo; one a hand-me-down from Mr. Dwivedi, her old boss), four long-sleeved men’s shirts (all hand-me-downs from Appa), three cotton skirts with frayed hems, one going-out blouse, and one shiny polyester skirt unsuitable for housework because it sticks to her thighs when she sweats. She also has four posters that came free with copies of Movieland magazine, but has neither the strength nor the will to take them down. Where she’s going, she won’t have a place to put them. All in all, it will therefore take her three minutes flat to pack, but even her mostly empty suitcase will be a strain for her weak arms only made weaker by her lack of appetite over the past few months.
     Amma will not offer Chellam tea coffee sofdrink before she goes, though she and Suresh and Aasha are just sitting down to their ten o’clock tea, and though one mug of tea sits cooling untouched on the red Formica table as Appa stands at the gate under his enormous black umbrella, speaking with Chellam’s father. There wouldn’t be time for Chellam to drink anything anyway. There’s only one afternoon bus from Gopeng to the bus stop half a mile from their village, and if she and her father miss the eleven o’clock bus to Gopeng, they’ll miss that connecting bus and have to walk all the way to their village, pulling the suitcase along behind them on its three working wheels. Chellam will probably have to do most of the pulling, and hold her father by the elbow besides, because he is drunk as usual.
     Thud thud thud goes her suitcase down the stairs, its broken wheel bent under it like a sick bird’s claw. The suitcase has done nothing but sit empty in the storeroom all year, but its straps and buckles have worn themselves out and it seems now to be held shut only by several long lengths of synthetic pink raffia wound and knotted around it to keep the geckos and cockroaches out. On the uncarpeted landing the sharp edge of the broken wheel scrapes loudly against the floor. Amma flinches and shudders. "Look, look," she whispers urgently to Suresh and Aasha without taking her eyes off Chellam. "Purposely she’s doing it. She is taking revenge on us it seems. For sending her home. As if after all she’s done we’re supposed to keep her here and feed her it seems."
     Suresh and Aasha, wide-eyed, say nothing.

Meet the Author

Preeta Samarasan was born and raised in Malaysia, but moved to the United States in high-school. She received her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan, where an early version of this novel received the Hopwood Novel Award; she also recently won the Asian American Writer’s Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award. She currently lives in central France with her husband and dog.

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Evening Is the Whole Day 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
jessie2 More than 1 year ago
I read everything and then quickly resell on Ebay, well this one is a keeper, it holds a spot on my VERY selective bookshelf. This book is so beautifully written it brings tears to your eyes. I kept looking at the author's picture in wonder that anyone could write something so beautiful, so mysterious and so terribly sad. Every single character no matter how despicable on the surface has a poignant back story (poor, poor Chellam). Aasha is the main character and your heart just breaks for her start to finish. I give this book my highest recommendations. I miss reading it, a true test of a memorable book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This sounded like a very interesting book but ended up being an endurance test. The draw of the little girl's ability to see to see ghosts was very minimally featured. This was just another book about a very screwed up and boring family. The narrative parts were fine but did we really need the true to life dialog to get a picture of the culture. I think not. BLAH BLAH BLAH.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book was recommended by NPR, so looked into it. I did not know enough of the Indian words to fully understand each paragraph. So, I had to only focus on the story line, less on the quality of the writing. Sad but understandable story.
jllfromnewyork More than 1 year ago
Tthis is one talented writer why hasnt SHE WRITTEN MORE?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm going to go ahead and call this my favorite novel of the decade. I've never, ever, EVER, believed in characters as deeply as I believe in the inhabitants of The Big House. You know what - forget the decade! This is as good a novel as I know of, and as intimate and moving a reading experience as I've had, and as rich and vivid a world as I¿ve ever read my way into. I don't know if I've ever loved a character as much as I love Aasha. Love though, is not all I feel for this book ¿ and this, I think, is what makes it so seriously, truly, utterly great: it's also unrelentingly painful. It will hurt you. It hurts, even when guided by a loving hand, to look so honestly at the brutality and smallness and meanness of which humanity is capable. It hurts to follow the trails of ruin left by willful blindnesses, shameful prejudices, and faithless underestimations it hurts to watch small mistakes, no matter how innocently or ignorantly perpetrated, result in huge, enveloping, unrescindable sadnesses ¿ but to be able to look at all of this squarely, attentively, and unsparingly to depict it fully, in all its ugly complexity to dwell on the pain, to pick and prod and examine it, to stare into its hideous face with humor and healthy cynicism, but also, somehow, hope ¿ is, I think, the bravest sort of thing a piece of writing can do. I smiled on nearly every page, but never did the novel allow me to indulge the dangerous fantasies of a happy ending ¿ not for everyone, not in a world like ours. oh yeah - and did I mention that it's got absolutely everything else that anyone could possibly want in a novel - mystery, political strife, domestic intrigue, hilarity, a thrilling loop-the-looping structure, and 339 pages of pure, unadulterated dazzling prose. And by the end, as an added bonus, you'll feel like an expert on Malaysian history, politics, and race relaitons. In sum: I friend this book, know or not? Five stars is nowhere near enough.
tamesthetic More than 1 year ago
great book