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Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo

Beyond the Rice Fields - Naivo, Allison M. Charette

This book is celebrated for being the first novel from Madagascar translated into English (though it was written in French originally, not a large or unusual gap to jump). It is also the author’s first novel, and I would be interested to see what he does next, though I wasn’t thrilled with this one.

Beyond the Rice Fields is, ultimately, a novel about the mass purges and killings carried out by the Imerina queen in Madagascar in the mid-19th century, though it takes a long time to get there. First we follow our two protagonists – Tsito, a boy who is sold as a slave at a young age, and Fara, a girl whose family buys him for household help – through their childhoods and much of their adult lives. We read about their childhood games, their schooling, Tsito’s career as a craftsman, Fara’s triumph as a dancer and anticlimactic life afterwards, their local lord and his downfall, and their interactions with various other people around them, all of which goes on without much plot for more than half the book. It’s only in the last third – a point at which many readers are likely to have given up – that it becomes intense. And suddenly it’s a page-turner, albeit a dark and tragic one. If it had handled all the setup more quickly, my rating would be a solid 4 stars.

But then, plotting issues often aren’t entirely about plot, and here I suspect someone from the culture would have a much better experience with the book. Tsito’s and Fara’s personalities don’t quite seem compelling to me, but I don’t know the cultural background behind them. And their narrative voices actually are somewhat distinct, which is impressive, especially in translation. The book certainly feels textured and authentic in a way that an outsider can’t entirely appreciate. You can tell it was written for a native audience, though it’s still comprehensible to an outsider (and I love the Malagasy names and words sprinkled throughout. Speaking of which, the translator and publishers did a fantastic job with not only a glossary of both words and names, but a quick chronology of relevant monarchs). And looking back, I can see how some things were set up, but I also no doubt missed a lot by not knowing how this history was treated before.

At any rate, this is a decent book, a great choice if you are interested in Madagascar, but not one I’m likely to recommend to a casual reader.