The Amazing Absorbing Boy by Rabindranath Maharaj is a well written, first-person vernacular account of a young Trinidadian boy who leaves his island village of Mayaro after his mother dies, and with the help of his Uncle Boysie, journeys to meet his absentee father in Canada.
Not entirely sure what to expect, he soon discovers that his father is no less absent in person, making it clear from the beginning that 17-year-old Sam’s arrival in Toronto was not by his choice. In the void left by his father’s continued and unexplained absences, Sam begins to explore the new world he has found himself in, moving in ever growing spheres of discovery as he replaces his fears with an open seeking for understanding.
It is a strange new place he finds himself in, living in an apartment block in Toronto’s Regent Park but gradually travelling further out around and eventually beyond the city, where despite the mundane surroundings, worlds appear to live within worlds, and each one’s inhabitants revolving within their own personal orbits.
Armed with a mind shaped by childhood comics, imported Hollywood films and a practical village upbringing, as well as years of longing for a missing father whose absence was coloured by Sam’s imaginings of what he might be like, Sam begins to learn not only about this new country and new life he finds himself in, but he also uncovers discomfiting truths about his father – and some unexpected truths about himself.
Each chapter is filled with the strange and the sublime, and the character of Sam draws you in, absorbing your attention as his off-kilter worldview makes you look at things you considered familiar – the abruptly changing streets of Toronto neighbourhoods, the nuances of Canadian weather, the plethora of languages and cultures rubbing up against each other every which way – and makes it all seem mildly foreign, regardless of how long you’ve called it home. It is a story that evokes the loneliness of not just being an immigrant in a strange and massive place, but also the loneliness of being a teenager, an only son, an almost-orphan, all rolled into one.
But it also shows the tiny worlds that exist in every shoulder we brush past on the way into a subway train car, beneath the tired expression of every Coffee Time shopgirl or library custodian, behind the opaque expressions and words of a neighbour who speaks a different language. Through Sam’s eyes, you see a world unfold, then fold back into the world he’s known as he attempts to make sense of the newness of his situation by drawing from his past life on a tiny island in the Caribbean. It is a fascinating read, in a clearly articulated voice – you don’t have any idea what the author might be like; all you know is Sam, and his love for comic books through whose lens he filters life, and his reluctant kindnesses, and his quiet yet intense curiousity, and his deep sense of self-possession.
His stories are both fantastical and ordinary, but the line isn’t easily discernible – and this is a good thing. But right when you realize he is coming into his own as a person, and literally, as an adult, and is beginning to expand the horizons of possibility for his new life, the book ends. Talk about your loose ends, these ones have been abruptly chopped off, leaving a prickly bunch of unresolved questions poking uncomfortably at your psyche after you put down the book.
Reading the last sentence, you might be startled into flipping back and forth a few pages, certain you’ve missed something. But that might be just what is meant by a “slice of life” story. Once you get to that sharp edge that is the end, there’s no more cake for you. Okay, so that was a horrible metaphor, but this is a fantastic book and there’s just something about the ending that leaves much to be desired.
But that notwithstanding, it is clear why this book has received all the praise it has since its publication in 2010 by Random House. It is a national bestseller, was a finalist for the City of Toronto Book Award, and is the winner of the Trillium Book Award.
The author, Rabindranath Maharaj, has published three prior novels, and if the experience with The Amazing Absorbing Boy is anything to go by, it appears I will be seeking those out too.