Neil Bissoondath
London: Random House, 1999
ISBN # 0-09-928385-9
417 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2005

Yasmin doesn’t realize it, but she’s going home – the home where she was born, whose future her father shaped and her mother escaped. In this complex and compelling novel we learn, along with Yasmin, much of the history of three generations of the Ramedser family.

As the novel opens Yasmin is preparing to leave her home in Canada to return to her birthplace, an unnamed island of the Caribbean, a former British possession. She is taking her mother’s ashes back, to be poured into a river near the family home.

In a fascinating and challenging structure we are given a detailed family history and profound reflections of the human condition – of individuals, the family and even of political crisis.

Author Neil Bissoondath achieves this with a rapid fire succession of 187 chapters with three separate settings:

  1. The story of Yasmin’s trip to the island, meeting her father’s sister and brother, the long-time family maid and her radical young cousin, Ash.

  2. Events in the chapters of the above often stimulate reflections and flashbacks of Yasmin’s own history in Canada.

  3. Lastly is a set of chapters which are presented as a monologue of Yasmin’s late mother, speaking to her friend, Mrs. Livingston who is in a coma.

Given the title (The Worlds With Her) and the fact that in the events of her visit and in her flashbacks we are given Yasmin’s world, I assume the chapters of Yasmin’s mother’s monologue are actually Yasmin’s own creation of what she thinks her mother’s story would be. We are told that nurses in Mrs. Livingston’s home were stunned that Yasmin’s mother came daily to be with Mrs. Livingston even though she was in a coma, and carried on this conversation alone.

Bissoondath is especially good at capturing the struggles of this family of East Indian descent to make and create its place in both the British colonial world and in the post-colonial black-dominated world. The family seems to share a strong sense of individual responsibility, choice and freedom. We are given bits and pieces of this from various family members.

Yasmin’s mother says: “Circumstances… are everything. They create opportunity and responsibility.”

Yasmin and her husband hold: “… his accusation that choice is for her, the possibility of redemption; her accusation that choice is, for him, the avoidance of possibilities.”

Of her father it is said: “He always insisted … on the superiority of individual consciousness over group or professional demands.”

These themes run throughout the novel.

I love it when a book contains small passages which contain material which delights me even if they are not tied to the general themes or plot of the book. This novel contained two such gems.

Yasmin’s mother, who affected a die-hard British culture, tells her Canadian son-in-law of cricket; “The Americans … have a way of simplifying things. They’ve changed a game for gentlemen into a pastime for boys.”

But Yasmin’s husband, Jim, gets the cutest, if sophistic comment of the novel. He says of religion:

“I’ve always thought that was one more thing Marx didn’t get right. Religion isn’t an opiate. It’s a placebo for a chronic condition. Like alcohol or tobacco or recreational drugs. One of the ways we survive our fragile moments. We need it, don’t we? This belief in something larger than ourselves, and eternal.”

The Worlds Within Her is a beautiful and gentle book, but demanding and challenging at the same time. It’s a book that stops one cold now and again, and demands time out at times for contemplation.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett