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BooksApril 18, 2024

A love letter to Wellington: when i open the shop by romesh dissanayake, reviewed


Madeleine Ballard reviews the debut novel from romesh dissanayake.

when I open the shop, the debut novel by Naarm-based Aotearoa writer romesh dissanayake (Sri Lankan, Koryo Saram), is a narrative of grief. Devendra loses his mother, opens a noodle shop on The Terrace, grieves, and emerges changed. But just as grief is not a linear process, when I open the shop is no linear narrative.

The novel is presented in three parts, all of which jump between past and present tense. In Part I, we learn that Devendra’s mother died “five, maybe six months” ago and that he was her primary caregiver towards the end. The section offers high points of interest: a one-night stand with an old flame; a difficult customer spouting eye-rollers like “the thing is, I’ve got a thing for Asians. They just do it for me”. It’s also a love letter to the city of Wellington, offering the local reader pleasurable jolts of recognition.

But for the most part, Part I describes the mundane. Devendra is so matter-of-fact about organising his mother’s funeral (“just like a catering gig”) and working at the noodle shop that it would be easy to miss the sadness seething in the unsaid. I confess that I found myself frustrated, at times, by the sense of delayed explosion in this section, which at 68 pages is the longest in the book – but of course, that’s exactly what grief feels like: a numb limbo you can neither escape nor accelerate. 

Things pick up in Part II. The section opens with the story of how Devendra and his mother ended up in Aotearoa without his father, the descriptions of characters and the myriad small alienations of immigrating almost unbearably tender: “His fingers and hands, which had once contained melodies, now held only box cutters and scrubbing brushes”; “We’d never seen carpet on stairs. Had never worn our outside shoes inside.” In another highlight of this part, the narrative vaults into a brilliant, surreal scene where two characters drive over the Remutakas in heavy rain – a pathetic fallacy somehow made to feel fresh.

romesh dissanayake (Photo: Nisha Hunter)

Halfway through Part II, a Robbie Motion line drawing introduces a poem sequence (The Island) about two characters facing a storm on an island. Manone and Mantoo have no explicit link to Devendra, but their tale of overcoming takes on a kind of allegorical significance. 

I was undecided about the success of this pivot into poetry. When we emerge back into prose, in Part III, nine years have passed and Devendra is doing much better. His noodle shop has become a successful cafe; he’s made a group of friends; he’s found a partner. The poetic sequence manages this major emotional and temporal shift with elegance, but it also struck me as the kind of distracting formal solution I’m inclined to use myself when I’m avoiding something that’s harder to write. I wanted to watch Devendra work things out, not have it all happen off-stage.

On the other hand, The Island matches the poetic fragments that pepper the rest of the prose. And it speaks to the disorientation of the experience of grief, yes, but more than that, of living: being alive doesn’t always feel like forward motion. I’m also a fan of dissanayake’s subversion of the classic three-part structure. In Craft in the Real World, a critical text about writing as a person of colour, Korean American writer Matthew Salesses explains that Western narrative is generally built around a three-act causation structure in place since the Ancient Greeks: rising action, climax, falling action. Western readers expect this structure. But whose expectations does a writer prioritise? asks Salesses. “Craft says something about who deserves their story told. Who has agency and who does not…Who controls time. Whose world it is.” when I open the shop is not a story about being white in a white world; its primary audience is not white. That’s made clear in a hundred ways – Devendra’s wry recognition that “You always need to let white people know where you’re from…even if it’s made up”; the mention of dishes from kalguksu to sai oua without explanation – but it’s also exciting to see this reflected in the wider structure.

Part III confirms this book as the warm and wise Asian immigrant novel I’ve been waiting for. One scene, where Devendra remembers making carrot salad with his mother while his ancestors watch on, stayed with me for weeks. That salad feels important, because this is a book about food as much as grief – perhaps no surprise given dissanayake has worked as a chef. Food in this novel is vividly described – a dish of flash-fried potato with black vinegar and soy; homemade babath curry that has “that dirtiness. That funkiness. That grittiness that I remember from my childhood” – but it also colours life beyond the plate. Devendra listens to a church choir sing until he feels he’s “floating on [his] back in custard”; in his accent “you can hear the spiciness of a past life trying to peek through”. This is outstanding food writing: vivid, sensory, connected to context.

Perhaps the heart of the novel is the dinner party scene, where a group of BIPOC friends share a Sri Lankan meal. Their conversation reflects on racism between people of colour (“everyone’s racist. Not just white people. Look how we treat Tamils and Muslims back home”). They disagree over whether it’s wrong for a South Asian woman to sing the national anthem at an All Blacks game (“You took the place of a Māori person…That’s not our place”). They address the intersection of race and class (“Didn’t your parents put you through one of the bougiest boarding schools in the country?”). Like the rest of the novel, it’s a scene that’s refreshingly unafraid of complication.

On every level – character, form, language – dissanayake manages to offer something both innovative and complex in when I open the shop. I loved this bold and beautiful book.

when i open the shop by romesh dissanayake (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35) is available to purchase from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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