Sally Cooper Reviews Derek Mascarenhas's Coconut Dreams
In his debut story collection Coconut Dreams, Derek Mascarenhas’ links seventeen stories about the Pinto family, moving seamlessly from beaches and villages in Goa to the streets of a Canadian suburb.
Set in the mid-1940s, the stunning first story, “Call of the Bell,” tells the absorbing tale of Felix Pinto’s birth and childhood friendship with Clara, who later becomes his wife. The story reads like a fairy tale incorporating ghosts and thieves and corrupt priests among the coconut trees in a Goan village.
Most of Coconut Dreams’ stories belong to the young: Felix, and later his children; Ally, and her older brother Aiden. Mascarenhas captures their daily concerns, inhabiting their matter-of-fact observations and emotions believably and with ease. In “Carriers,” set in suburban Burlington, Ontario, in the 1990s, Mascarenhas details the awkwardness and social bite of paper carriers. Invited into a house to collect payment, Ally and Aiden witness a family spat and receive a racially-based insult. Macarenhas layers meaning into the story through subtle moments: “Down on the sidewalk were the gum spots. As we walked over them, I swallowed the dry, hardened gum in my mouth – it caught in my throat before going down.” In these stories, Ally and Aiden’s tumultuous inner world mirror the outer world with its unfinished buildings and unaware people. The endings come swiftly, aptly, and can seal family connections as often as they signify unlucky fates.
Though the stories are linked episodes depicting Ally’s and Aiden’s coming of age, some of them feature adults whom the children know, and strangers who briefly enter their mother’s life. While as engrossing as the children’s, these stories add less to the whole of the collection, and can seem tangential, despite giving us a glimpse into Clara’s chance encounters and underscoring a gentle thematic statement about fate and connectedness. Stories such as “When the Good Shines a Little Brighter” and “Two Islands” suffer a bit for not being linked more solidly to the other stories. “Two Islands” ultimately succeeds, however, by returning to Goa and juxtaposing the romantic perspective of white beach tourist, Thomas, with the more sober view of bereaved expat Goan, Clara: “On the horizon, a sliver of sun pierced the sea. The gold rose and grew and set fire to the clouds.” It is the statue of Dona Paula, Goa’s Romeo and Juliet, however, that Clara recommends seeing. “Small Things,” another standalone story, braids Clara’s experiences with those of a man who fixes her car, using this stranger’s perspective to shine light on her situation and character.
Most enjoyable are the stories highlighting the dating and marriage difficulties of the children’s single uncles and aunties, in particular Aunt Delilah in “So Far Away” and Uncle Francis in “One Hundred Steps.” Told from the child’s perspective, these stories offer warm, rich characters with precarious lives, lonely and caught between Canada and India. They also highlight India as a presence, however muted it may be for the children raised in Canada: “Delilah had been saying that things were better in India ever since she arrived. I had only been to India once when I was very young, but didn’t really want to go back—it sounded crowded and dirty.”
In the final story, “Coconut Dreams,” Aiden, older now, travels to Goa to stay with his uncle in Clara’s childhood home. Here the themes of the collection snap together. Aiden reflects on his discomfort with the nickname “’Coconut,’” given to him by other Indian students in his engineering class, how “it implied I was missing something, or faking or concealing my identity. But as the semester wore on that began to feel true.” Mascarenhas describes Uncle’s rural life in rich detail, from the rock and ore walls and outhouse to the reliance on home remedies. The beach reminds Aiden of a picture in his parents’ living room, a picture that recurs in the collection and “had been in my dreams since I was young.” In the end, Mascarenhas deftly weaves Aiden into the dream, expanding and opening up notions of identity in a satisfying way.
Sally Cooper is the author of the story collection Smells Like Heaven (ARP Books, 2017) as well as two acclaimed novels. Her third novel, With My Back to the World, is forthcoming in 2019 with Wolsak & Wynn.
Follow Sally on Twitter @cooper_sally