As Sweet as Honey by Indira Ganesan
As Sweet as Honey by Indira Ganesan is just that – a novel as sweet as honey, smooth, silky, beautifully rich and tropical. It was a book I could not wait to get back to and I was sorry to reach the end. Well written, beautifully structured, it is the story of a family, the joys and the tragedies and all that makes a family so very important.
We meet cousins, Sanjay, Mina and Rasi, ages 9,10 and 11. They live together in their Grandmother’s home, their parents scattered – some close by in the village, others working or studying far away in America. The time is much our own, perhaps the 1970’s, and the setting is an Island near Sri Lanka, Pi, a paradise of warmth and lush vegetation. The children, intelligent and perceptive, at that magical age between young childhood and the teenage years, are loved by all of the many adults, the aunties and uncles, in their lives.
Mina is often our narrator, as is her much older cousin, Aunt Meterling. It is Meterling whose life is at the centre of the novel. We meet her at her wedding, as she marries Uncle Archer, a white man whose family has had ties to this country through their gin making business. The children adore their Aunt Meterling and are very much her supporters.
As Sweet as Honey, with each chapter is introduced by a quote from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, is also the story of a marriage. We follow Meterling’s life with her cousins on the island of Pi, then her years as a wife and mother in England, the land of Austen and Dickens, and again some years later on a return visit to her homeland.
Meterling’s early life on Pi, where she lives in the family compound, and her sense of belonging to a large extended family – “middle-sized” in Mina’s eyes, give the reader a view of idyllic family life full of love and laughter. Later in England, Meterling is sometimes taken for the nanny of her Anglo- Indian child. Here she often finds herself lonely, missing her young cousins, the family and their traditions left behind, as she tries to establish a new life in this far away land.
Another important character in the novel is a ghost, a benign Bhuta, one of those “who die unexpectedly with unfulfilled desires”. This ghost is less disconcerting than one would imagine, both for those to whom he appears, and to the reader.
As Sweet as Honey was released just before another book set in much the same time and place. Shyam Selvaduri’s new novel The Hungry Ghost will be released early in April. Set in Sri Lanka and Canada, it also features a ghost as a credible and important character. As we wait for spring in Parry Sound it is a very lovely thing, for a short time to be able to disappear into the tropical paradise of the novel As Sweet as Honey.