Reviewed: Love and Other Rituals, Monica Macansantos, Grattan Street Press
At some point during the span of our lives, we wonder about the ways we’ve led it. The lost loves we pine for long after they have faded. Lonely nights spent far away from the people we hold dear. A job that etches away at the little sanity we can muster to move through the day. Responsibilities and obligations that haunt us. The imagined laughter of strangers who mock our lack of courage. This and so much more is the thread that binds Macansantos’s characters in Love and Other Rituals as they struggle to determine how best to lead their lives amidst burgeoning turmoil. In this collection of eight stories, there is dormant hope and irresolution to last a lifetime as Macansantos’s stories remove the veil of false contentment from the reader’s eyes.
In the opening story, ‘The Feast of Souls’, we meet a mother who stubbornly clings to the memory of a lost relative long after the relative’s parents have ceased to perform the ritual of mourning. We are introduced to her world through her young daughter, Erika, who accompanies her to the graveyard to pay respects. Erika’s mother refuses to allow the memory of the dead to fade away, tending to the grave to ensure that it is not mistreated or put to other uses. As Erika tries to make sense of her mother’s annual insistence on visiting her cousin’s grave, we are invited to ponder the relationship between memory and grief, and the ties that bind families together.
What follows is the titular story, ‘Love and Other Rituals’, where we meet a man, Rene, who inadvertently falls in love with Kardo. The two men are brought together by Kardo’s need for work so that he may provide for his family; Rene ends up hiring him as his personal handyman and gardener. Having previously been propositioned by previous employers, Kardo suggests that his relationship with Rene might become sexual should the latter struggle to find other work for him. Together, they form an unlikely pair as Rene’s growing love for Kardo reveals the gross inequality that animates their relationship. Here, Macansantos reveals the fraught nature of succumbing to necessity and how precarity can complicate love. We are left to question whether love can truly exist between Rene and Kardo.
Macansantos does not shy away from child narrators in her stories. This serves as a reminder that life’s tensions exist regardless of age; children grapple with their circumstances just as much as adults. Of course, the difference lies in their limited capacity to contextualise those tensions due to their early stage of development. In the story ‘Playing With Dolls’, young Margot narrates her understanding of her parents’ marriage and its eventual end. The luxury that surrounds their lives is revealed to be a mask, hiding the truth about a broken relationship simmering beneath. Margot learns ‘how adults [use] codes to lock away certain truths that [refuse] to uproot themselves from the world’ they inhabit. In this, Macansantos highlights how adulthood brings forth the pressure to conform, even as characters struggle against the weight of history.
History’s weight is yet again explored in the penultimate story ‘Inheritances’: Macansantos delves into unrealised desires, hopes and dreams, and how these may manifest on an intergenerational level. We meet a son, Andrew, who has to return home upon hearing about his father’s bout of psychosis, after the latter fails a bar exam for the fourth time. Through Andrew, Macansantos adroitly reflects human fears as he ruminates on the possibility of an unsatisfying future full of unrealised dreams. Each story in Love and Other Rituals is a breath of fresh air, leaving questions about the quality of one’s own life and whether there exist unrealised yearnings. Macansantos challenges us to lead lives worthy of the name, the better to stave off regret. She understands complacency all too well and invites the reader to approach their life with renewed interest.
Dr Tinashe Jakwa is a cultural critic, writer, and political theorist.