A Perfect Pledge is at once a beautifully detailed novel about family life, a lively and abundant portrait of Trinidadian society and an ambitious, universal story of striving and strife. Following four decades of tumult – both national and domestic – this third novel by acclaimed author Rabindranath Maharaj is both deeply perceptive and strikingly unsentimental; it is full of singular characters and memorable, often hilarious dialogue. A Perfect Pledge is a major addition both to Canadian literature and to the literature of the Caribbean.
The novel begins with the birth of a child to Narpat and Dulari in the village of Lengua in the late 1950s. Geevan, known universally as Jeeves, is the son that Narpat, an irascible cane farmer, has long wished for to add to his three daughters. But, growing up in his father’s shadow, Jeeves develops into a scrawny, quiet, somewhat sickly boy–not helped by Narpat’s unusual dietary pronouncements, including his insistence that Jeeves eat properly purgative foods.
On one level, A Perfect Pledge is a compelling story of the intricacies of family life – of the complex relationships between husband and wife, parents and children – set in a lopsided hut with, when the book begins, no electricity or indoor plumbing. Narpat, the patriarch, is an engrossing character, a self-proclaimed “futurist” with no patience for religious “simi-dimi.” His ideas to improve his family and his village’s lot are sometimes inspired, but sometimes seem crazy; occasionally they fall somewhere in between.
The novel follows the family’s progress, from the purchase of a cow named Gangadaye, through the children’s schooling, to Narpat’s almost solitary efforts to build a factory on his land, interspersed with accidents, weddings, conflict and much more besides. Through these events A Perfect Pledge becomes a subtle portrait not only of Narpat but of the forbearance and irritation of his wife Dulari and their daughters’ clashing personalities, often seen through the observant, hungry eyes of the young Jeeves.
But A Perfect Pledge takes up other subjects too. As well as the story of a family’s struggles, it is a vivid portrayal of Trinidad over the last four decades – a deprived and sometimes mad place lurching into modernization. Rural life on the island is particularly hard in the 1960s; the infrastructure is ramshackle and always on the cusp of being taken back by nature. But the village of Lengua is a cauldron boiling with village politics, Hollywood movies, neighbourly rivalries, ayurvedic healing and much else. And while it is both panoramic and empathic, A Perfect Pledge is also a deeply pleasurable read: its elegant narrative tone is enriched by the astonishing improvisations of a Trinidadian English infused with Indian, British, American and other influences. Not a page passes without some jaw-dropping turn of phrase, from icy hots to scrapegoats, dreamsanhope to couteyahs.
A Perfect Pledge follows its characters through years of growth, challenges, and in Narpat’s case, eventual decline. As he gets older, Narpat stiffens into himself, his plans becoming ever more Quixotic and even dangerous. Jeeves, meanwhile, is trying to step clear of his bad beginnings and become an independent, self-sufficient man, while honouring his family ties (something his sisters conspicuously fail to do). A Perfect Pledge is a funny and moving book that portrays the struggles of an entire society; but the difficult relationship between father and son is ultimately at its heart.
Rabindranath Maharaj is the author of two previous novels: The Lagahoo’s Apprentice, which was a Globe and Mail and Toronto Star notable book of the year; and Homer in Flight, which was nominated for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award; and two collections of short stories, The Book of Ifs and Buts and The Interloper, which was nominated for a Regional Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. Rabindranath Maharaj was born in Trinidad and now lives in Ajax, Ontario.
A Globe and Mail Best Book
Finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Caribbean and Canada Region)
“The only truly serious and successful Canadian novel I have read so far this year is set entirely on the island of Trinidad and has not a single Canadian character…. For the record, [Maharaj] is a more accomplished writer than Vassanji and a livelier novelist than Mistry.”
–Phillip Marchand, Toronto Star
“A Perfect Pledge . . . will establish [Maharaj] as a major Canadian writer and literary figure of international stature. . . . A Perfect Pledge shares the comically neutral tone of Naipaul’s earlier novels, except that Maharaj’s humour is broader, the characters more hilarious in their physical and linguistic excesses. Also, unlike Naipaul, Maharaj’s mirth belies an implacable tenderness, an empathy and acceptance of human nature–a respectfulness that precludes scorn. . . . Maharaj manages to draw the reader very close to Narpat’s family. We come to see them–with all their strife and occasional violence–as oddly loving and loyal. . . . But this is just one of numerous sleights of hand Maharaj employs. In the end, we can’t remember the precise moment we stopped rolling our eyes and began wiping them.”
–The Globe and Mail
“A poignant, studiously unsentimental portrait of a man too big for his community, and of the enduring bonds between father and son. . . . What the book is, really, is pure Maharaj. When a major writer emerges, the time for comparisons ends, and the time to celebrate the arrival of a distinctive, fully formed voice and sensibility begins. So, begin.”
“[Maharaj has created a colourful universe of characters, and the writing is witty and sharp. Much like the Island of Trinidad, A Perfect Pledge is a polyglot of different styles. Part comedy, part tragedy, the book is Dickensian in scope, creates a detailed world of characters à la V.S. Naipaul and evokes the allegorical qualities of Chinua Achebe or even John Steinbeck. But it is those echoes of Don Quixote that linger the most. At the personal or political level, it would appear that vowing to fight the windmills of change can be a dangerous pledge to make.”
–The Gazette (Montreal)
“For a decade, Trinidadian-born author Rabindranath Maharaj has been treating readers to stories that remind us how colourful and cruel life can be. . . . A Perfect Pledge is a masterpiece of real-life misery, the kind that touches you and lingers for a long, long while.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“A Perfect Pledge delivers a beautifully written and beautifully sad tale.”
“Among the many things to admire about A Perfect Pledge is the author’s confidence. . . . Imagine Don Quixote staying home in Trinidad, and you’ve got something like the wandering, witty, ultimately devastating story that Rabindranath Maharaj tells in A Perfect Pledge. . . . I’d advise keeping an eye out for more from Maharaj.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“What a delicious feeling it is to read the first pages of a 400-page book and know you are in the hands of an accomplished storyteller. . . . It is impossible not to compare Rabindranath Maharaj with Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. . . . This eminently satisfying novel has the clarity of Naipaul and some of the bite, and a great deal that is Maharaj’s own.”
–The Seattle Times
“A sprawling, colorful epic. . . . This novel’s allure comes from its comic energy and its plucky, determined characters–especially the farmer’s son, who struggles between his sense of filial duty and his desire for independence. In the end, the book . . . is charming and you have to admire its elaborate craftsmanship.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“The novel's panoramic depiction of a crumbling traditional society is a richly satisfying dish, with the charm of the exotic for readers who come from anywhere else. . . . [M]asterfully told.”
–The Boston Globe