Rabindranath Maharaj’s
The Amazing Absorbing Boy

Knopf, 2010

“Useless! Completely kissmeass useless nowhereian.”

That’s how Uncle Boysie describes Samuel’s father.

“Your father was a big inventor in Trinidad, you know…[b]ut the only thing he invent was a scheme to get out of the island.”

But talk of his father’s neemakararam — betrayal* — doesn’t stop Uncle Boysie from making arrangements for Samuel to leave Mayaro to live with his father — who got out of the island long ago by moving to Canada — after Samuel’s mother has died.

Canada is, for this seventeen-year-old Trindadian boy, something wholly different.

He’s picked up some Canadian lingo from comic books (“Oh gosh. That’s swell. Thanks, Buddy. How awful. You gotta be kidding. Great Scott.”)

But even though his experience with comics makes him feel a little less adrift at times (he recognizes the single Canadians walking alone in the March cold and dark as being like “dematerializing comic book ghosts”), he struggles to make sense of this new country.

Dear old dad isn’t much help. Not even after Auntie Umbrella comes (three months into Samuel’s stay).

But she does help the reader, offering a perspective that’s different from that of Samuel and that of his father, and yet shares elements of each.

When she first arrives, she falls in love with Canada.

“In the nights, while I was sleeping on my foam, I would spot her on the balcony gazing at the lights from the CN tower Shining in our patch of the city. ‘It look as if somebody sprinkle jewels all over the place,’ she told me one night. ‘The Lord take his time when he was making Canada.'”

But then, some time passes, and she begins to feel differently.

“‘You ever notice that all the people who get in accident or fall from building or get burn up or drown in some lake, have foreign names?’ Or ‘You ever notice how nobody willing to smile back at you?'”

Samuel begins to see the city slightly differently after his Auntie comes to visit, but it’s not only members of his family who influence his perspective.

He makes contact — sometimes fleetingly — with a variety of people in the city, and each of them, in their own way, affects the way that he feels about this unfamiliar place.

“Make contact. I liked the phrase and it made me feel like a shadowy hero with a secret identity. Shy and often puzzled on the surface but understanding everything, all the confusing Canadian customs and laws, in my hero identity.”

As often as not, his point-of-view is influenced by seeing the anger and frustration and sadness of other people who are new to this place, by wanting to find an alternative to that unhappiness and conflict.

But on the third floor of the Toronto Reference Library, he meets a man who has a way of looking at things that really speaks to him.

“Presumptuousness and innocence must be poured in equal parts into the same container. It is only then that one can discover magic. The way he went on it had seemed that magic for him was not spells and frogs and Ra’s al Ghul, but a new way of looking at some old thing.”

Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy does give Torontonians a fresh perspective.

But he also reminds all readers that we just have to look in order to find a “new way of looking at some old thing”, any old thing.

And that’s a wonderful thing indeed.

Note: This is the first of the five posts that will focus on the titles nominated for the 2011 Toronto Book Award. The others will appear on October 8, 10, 11, and 12, with something fun for the 13th, the date on which the prize is to be announced. (Edited to add that this novel won the Award!)

Toronto-ness in The Amazing Absorbing Boy: Regent Park, Allan Gardens, Cabbagetown, Toronto Necropolis, Coxwell subway station, College street bars, Toronto Reference Library, Pickering GO station, Union station (Onion station), Exhibition Place, St. Lawrence Market, Skydome, Harbourfront bench facing the lake, Coffee Time on Parliament

  • This is defined in the moment but, if you’re keen on learning the language, there is a short Trinidadian Vocabulary list in the back of the novel, with the disclaimer that definitions are fluid in Trinidadian context

Companion Reads:
David Chariandy’s Soucouyant (2007)
David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories (2003)
Anthony de Sa’s Barnacle Love (2008)