Synopsis: 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.