Vol. II No. I
September 2000
The Danforth Review
Online edition may be found here.


Sweet Like Saltwater
by Raywat Deonandan
TSAR Publications , 2000

Reviewed by Patra Reiser


Ethnicity in contemporary Canadian literature is hot right now. Sweet like Saltwater fits neatly into this fairly new niche in literary culture, as a man of "Indian ancestry, Guyanese origin and Canadian citizenship", Toronto writer Raywat Deonandan marks his fictional debut.

I approached the collection with anticipation, wanting to be swept away to a strange yet familiar landscape, a vacation without leaving my cozy bed. I really really wanted to like this book. I really did. Sixteen little worlds in which to enter, with fascinating names like 'Children of the Melange', 'El Dorado', 'Camel's Lips' and 'Motherland'; I could already smell the flowers and spices, the ocean, hear the tigers and different tongues.

Deonandan begins Sweet like Saltwater with an introduction, where he sets up the characters of his stories, and the Indian people in general, as a "conquered people" rather than allowing his audience to come to their own conclusion. Is Deonandan "contemplating the Indianness of our new societies" or grasping for "a reconciliation [that] must be made between one's chosen home and the ancestral memories that scream from within the veins."

Sweet Like Saltwater offers no resolution. His stories, whether set in Guyana, "Back Home", the new world, or a colony on another planet in the future (!) have characters trying to determine how they belong, pondering the space between independence and displacement. But the tales have a detached quality. Technically, the narratives are apt and at times, even adept, with a strong voice. His dialogues with the different dialects are especially skillful. But the competent details do not completely add up to a satisfying whole, attracting interest but failing to sustain it.

And at times, he succumbs into the obvious. In Nataraj, for example, Deonandan mixes beauty and the banal in his language, evoking stars and planets, but then plunging back into the unoriginal:

As the sun climed to its apex high in the sky, Shakira had wailed in the agony of childbirth, as her mother and grandmothers had done before her. She had panted and pushed, had felt the ripping of baby's flesh from her own. She had held Nataraj against her heaving bosom as she awaited the afterbirth, had wiped the wetness from his eyes and had bathed in the glory of his wails.

The story confronts the endless circle and repetition of life, but all he reincarnates is the recycling of clichés.

In one of the more absorbing of the tales, The Rhymer, a man named Bort earns his living by creating verse for his clients so that, among other things "my meat will be sweet, and my profits sweeter." A woman rhymer appears one day to challenge his position and livelihood. The subject matter affords such great scope to explore on many levels such things as male/female relationships, or what is poetry and how does it affect/benefit society?

Unfortunately, Deonandan is unable to ponder any of this as once again clichés riddle the text: "The roar of applause was thunderous if not deafening." To employ a common writing workshop lament, he does too much telling and not enough showing. The tale ends with Bort exhorting his challenger: "Don't you see," he said, searching for the explanation whilst giving it, "you've got to know your audience."

Such simple advice, but at the same time it can inspire the difference between success and mediocrity.

Patra Reiser lives in Montreal.