54 pages 1 hour read

Shani Mootoo

Cereus Blooms At Night

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Cereus Blooms at Night (1996) is the first novel-length work of fiction written by Shani Mootoo, a Canadian author who was born in Ireland and grew up on the island nation of Trinidad. The novel was originally published in Canada and received critical acclaim there and internationally. It was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Giller Prize and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Mootoo is also a visual artist and filmmaker, which lends her writing a rich, cinematic quality. A notable example of postcolonial, Caribbean, and queer fiction, Cereus Blooms at Night addresses themes such as generational trauma and sexual identity.

This guide refers to the edition of the novel published in 1996 by Grove Press.

Plot Summary

Content Warning: The source text includes depictions of sexual abuse, incest, and family violence.

The novel takes place on the fictional island of Lantanacamara in the town of Paradise. It chronicles the intersecting stories of Tyler, a nurse at the Paradise Alms House, and Mala Ramchandin, an elderly resident at the Paradise Alms House with a mental health condition. She is suspected of killing her father, but the judge determines that due to lack of evidence and her inability to stand trial, she should be permanently placed at Paradise Alms House. Tyler and Mala begin their time there concurrently, and Tyler is assigned to Mala because of the immediate connection he establishes with her. Tyler views her with curiosity and empathy, allowing him to gain her trust. Mala is nonverbal and uncultured due to years of isolated living in her overgrown home. Tyler uses patience and kindness to draw her out of her shell, starting by imitating bird calls and insect sounds. The more Tyler connects with Mala, the more he comes to understand the tragic nature of her life and their similarities. Both Mala and Tyler are “outcasts”; Tyler because he is gay and Mala because of her family’s traumatic history and the abuse she endured from her father.

Tyler starts unraveling Mala’s story, beginning with her father, Chandin Ramchandin. Chandin, presumably of Indian descent, grew up in the poorer areas of Paradise but was provided an opportunity to lift himself out of his situation when he was unofficially “adopted” by Reverend Thoroughly and his family. Chandin joined their household and was treated as a true son and brother to the family’s biological daughter, Lavinia. Growing up alongside Lavinia, Chandin developed romantic feelings for her but was prohibited from acting on them because they were siblings. Eventually, after completing his schooling at the Seminary, Chandin married Lavinia’s friend and his only Indian classmate—Sarah. They had two daughters together. Meanwhile, Lavinia had been living abroad in the Shivering Northern Wetlands but returned home to Lantanacamara after breaking off her engagement. She was excited to reconnect with Chandin and Sarah, and Chandin secretly hoped he could finally act upon his longstanding feelings for Lavinia.

Lavinia began to visit the Ramchandin household frequently, and her friendship with Sarah became romantic. Sarah and Lavinia kept their affair a secret, but young Mala—or Pohpoh, as she was called at the time—discovered them in an embrace. The two realized that to be together, they had to run away, planning to bring Mala and her sister Asha with them. On the day of their departure, they were discovered by Chandin, and the children were unwillingly left behind.

Chandin was outraged by the betrayal from both his wife and the object of his unrequited desire. He abandoned religion and his livelihood, turning instead to drinking and destruction. He took out his rage on his children, especially Mala, whom he raped one night. He continued to abuse Mala—and sometimes Asha—almost every day for their entire childhood.

As Mala aged into young adulthood, she befriends her schoolmate, Ambrose, or “Boyie.” Boyie also admired Mala but did not know anything about her home life. One day, Mala recognized Boyie’s affection toward her and seduced him. The two went to Boyie’s mother’s house and Mala undressed, but she stopped Boyie just before they had intercourse. She quickly left and returned home. The narrative returns to the present, where Tyler relates to the reader that Mala has received her first visitors at Paradise Alms House: Ambrose Mohanty and his son, Otoh. Ambrose is her childhood friend, Boyie.

At this point in the novel, Mala’s story intertwines with Otoh’s. The reader learns that Otoh was born a girl but always felt that he was a boy, so much so that as he grew into adulthood, he “transformed” from woman to man. Ambrose has been giving Mala food and other provisions since before Otoh was born, much to the dismay of Otoh’s mother. Otoh often made the deliveries to Mala’s house, and he eventually became fascinated and even infatuated with her, hoping always to catch a glimpse of her. Otoh was curious about the connection between Ambrose and Mala, though his father would not tell him the full extent of their history. Eventually, during one of his supply deliveries, Otoh happened upon Mala in her yard, and she mistook him for Ambrose. They danced, and Mala beckoned him into the house. She led him downstairs to a locked room, where the decaying body of her father, Chandin, lay on a bed. Otoh was horrified and rushed from the house. He collapsed on the street, and passersby alerted the police that something happened at Mala’s house.

When the police investigated, they discovered Chandin’s body and arrested Mala. Otoh filled Ambrose in on his discovery, and upon realizing that Mala would be put to trial and her house would be ransacked because of his actions, Otoh burned down her house in the middle of the night. Ambrose recognized what his son did and told Otoh about their courtship. Chandin discovered their relationship and, fearing the same abandonment he experienced from his wife and Lavinia, brutally beat and raped Mala. Ambrose found her the next day, and before he could react, Chandin threatened him with a cleaver. Mala attacked her father, and in the ensuing fight, he was knocked unconscious. Ambrose fled, and Mala was heartbroken. She dragged her father’s unconscious body to the sewing room in the basement, locked the door, and boarded the window.

Returning to the present, Ambrose explains to Otoh that he tried to go back to Mala after that incident, but she violently drove him away each time. This led to her reputation as a “mad woman,” and he resigned himself to providing monthly supplies. Thus began the tradition of his monthly deliveries—and the eventual failure of his marriage to Elsie. Before, Ambrose took month-long naps, but these stopped when the deliveries started. Elsie grew frustrated with him because in her mind, when he was sleeping, he was out of the way and not prompting her to think about him or Mala. Elsie decided to leave him and head north. Before she left, she advised Otoh to make sure whomever he marries knows his full story and understands who he really is. Otoh is embarrassed by discussing his sexuality with his mother, but he assures her that anyone he marries will know the truth.

In the novel’s concluding arc, Mala receives a visit from Judge Walter Bissey, who has been working to find her sister, Asha. He discovered a box of undelivered letters sitting on a shelf in the post office: years of correspondence from Asha, hoping to reunite with Mala and learn about her fate. This provides Mala and Tyler with some hope that Asha is still out there waiting for her sister. Meanwhile, Tyler decides he is ready to reveal his identity to Otoh and the rest of Paradise Alms House. He dons a nurse’s dress and a full face of makeup for Otoh’s visit, and the two walk across the grounds with Tyler holding his head high. They visit the garden to plant the cereus clippings originally brought by Ambrose and Otoh, and the attraction between them grows palpable. Tyler asks Otoh if he can wait until the cereus blooms in just a few nights, and Otoh responds that he can and will. The two of them walk back to Ambrose and Mala, who watch them happily.