‘Eve Out of Her Ruins’ by Ananda Devi (Review)

Our first #WITMonth trip earlier this week was brought to us by a writer from Mauritius, and today’s journey sees us actually visiting that country.  We’re looking at another book set in a tropical paradise – or rather, in an insalubrious area in its shadows.  This one’s a story of poverty, sex and murder, with young people doomed from birth to disappointing lives and thwarted ambitions…

…just another day in paradise.

Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, digital review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum Publishing) may be set in a land of beautiful beaches and clear-blue seas, but the writer’s focus is on a slightly less attractive location:

I’m in a gray place.  Or rather, yellowish brown, which better suits its name: Troumaron.  Troumaron, a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.  Here is where the cyclone refugees are rehomed, those rendered homeless by tropical storms and who, two or five or ten or twenty years later, still have their toes in the water and their eyes pale as rain.
p.11 (Deep Vellum, 2016)

It’s here, within reach of the shiny capital Port Louis, where tourists go to play and scatter their dollars, that Devi’s story is set, with stories of a handful of young people growing up in an area whose name translates, rather aptly, to ‘brown hole’…

The speaker of the words above is Saadiq, or Saad, a teenager doing his best to live two contradictory lives (attentive schoolboy by day, fun-loving gang member by night), and he’s less concerned with the commands of his teachers and parents than the edicts handed down by Clélio, the undisputed king of Troumaron’s gangs.  And yet there’s someone else in his life, a girl who drifts through her days at her own pace, slight, frail-looking, but with an iron core.  Eve is determined to make it out of Troumaron in her own way, and it takes a tragedy to make her see that clawing your way out of poverty and suppression isn’t as easy as simply willing it to happen.

Eve, of course, is the star of the show here.  She’s a young woman with a special, fragile beauty, and her body is a currency she decides to use to fulfil her needs.  Knowing what men want, she’s happy to give them something, but never everything:

At night, I haunt the asphalt.  Meetings are arranged.  They take me, they bring me back.  I remain cold.  Whatever changes in me, it’s not the truest, innermost part of myself.  I protect myelf.  I know how to protect myself from men.  I’m the predator here. (p.18)

While most of the locals see her as simply a woman for sex, there are exceptions.  Saad, knowing that most of the men around have slept with her, loves her all the same, dreaming of the two of them getting out of Troumaron one day.  Then there’s Eve’s friend (and possibly her lover), Savita, who helps her lighten up and forget their dark surroundings.

As is clear from the start, Eve Out of Her Ruins is, of course, very much a tragedy.  The first-person accounts are building towards a dramatic climax, and the catalyst for the later events is a violent attack that shatters the brittle equilibrium of Troumaron.  The makeshift shanty town is suddenly on edge, with fear and anger palpable in the muddy streets.  The attack also comes as a rude awakening for Eve and Saad, with their hopes of simply gliding through life safely until an opportunity to leave arises vanishing in the dirt.

One way of looking at the story is as an examination of the evil of poverty and the choice it gives you.  You can dream of ways out, working towards them every day knowing the chances of making it are virtually non-existent.  It’s much easier, as Clélio does, to embrace it, accepting that this is all you’ll ever know.  Perhaps there’s no point in struggling when the odds are stacked against you, if every time you take a step forward, something will drag you back by your hair into the society you’re not sure you really want to leave.

Eve’s approach is a naïve belief that she’s different, special, and that she’ll make it, convinced that she’s using men and not being used herself.  However, these beliefs are soon shown to be delusions.  Devi uses regular, intermittent sections in italics which act as a kind of Greek chorus, with an anonymous someone watching Eve from a distance.  These voices provide a different approach to the action, often contradicting the young woman’s view of events.  Even as Eve believes she’s using her body to get ahead, these voices react with scorn, mocking her foolishness and telling us that there’s no hope for her.

Eve Out of Her Ruins is a pleasure to read, with Zuckerman doing excellent work on the variety of voices Devi uses, a vital contrbution to the success of the novel.  Just as much, though, it’s the character of Eve that makes the story, an enigmatic figure ghosting through the novel, perhaps best seen when the dark background is set against occasional rays of light and happiness:

The poetry of women is when Savita and I walk together step by step to avoid the ruts.  It’s when we pretend to be twins because we look like each other.  We wear the same clothes, the same perfume, as if we’re dancing together.  Our earrings chime.  Her nose is pierced with a tiny jewel like a star.  The poetry of women is laughter in this lost place, laughter that opens up a small part of paradise so we don’t drown ourselves. (p.26)

This is also true for Saad, and in the few moments he manages to spend with Eve, especially a morning bike ride up the mountain, there are glimpses of the possibility of a happy ending.

Alas, these glimpses are all too fleeting.  Poverty, patriarchy, outsiders – the traps for Eve are numerous.  However lightly she treads, she’s bound to fall into one eventually, and when she does, there’ll be little Saad can do to help her.  In the end, she may well be forced into taking matters into her own hands, only to fall back into the brown hole she’s destined never to escape from…

While I chose the two books for this week’s reviews based purely on the writers’ nationality, you may have noticed several similarities between the two books, and a short way into Eve Out of Her Ruins, I was amazed by the many parallels between Devi’s novel and Nathacha Apanah’s Tropic of Violence.  Both are set in slum areas of tropical islands, examining how poverty and statelessness combine to keep people down, and both feature a murder that seals the fate of one of the main characters.  More than that, though, it’s the similarity in structure of the two novels that is most striking, with both stories being told through a handful of first-person monologues, the protagonists taking turns to say their piece, often in very different voices.

It’s not that uncommon for writers to come up with similar ideas, but it’s rare that you actually read them one after the other, so it made for a fascinating experience.  Although I’d certainly recommend both, I would probably suggest Devi’s book over Appanah’s for a couple of reasons.  One is the Greek chorus sections that provide a different slant on the story, poetic fragments pulling the story along and foreshadowing Eve’s fate.  The other concerns the murder at the heart of the story, with the identity of the killer providing another angle to the book, showing that justice is hard to come by when you’re trapped in the ‘brown hole’ of poverty.  If anyone else has read both, I’d love to hear your views on this, and if not – well, why not give them a go? 😉

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