Translated by Allison M. Charette.
Fara and her father’s slave, Tsito, have been close since her father bought the boy after his forest village was destroyed. Now in Sahasoa, amongst the cattle and rice fields, everything is new for Tsito, and Fara at last has a companion. But as Tsito looks forward to the bright promise of freedom and Fara, backward to a dark, long-denied family history, a rift opens between them just as British Christian missionaries and French industrialists arrive and violence erupts across the country. Love and innocence fall away, and Tsito and Fara’s world becomes enveloped by tyranny, superstition, and fear.
Beyond the Rice Fields is the first novel published in Madagascar to be translated into English. I’ve had a lot of firsts in my Read the World Project but learning how so few works are translated into English (or any other language than the one it was written in) from various countries never ceases to surprise me.
You know the phrase “Never assume – it makes an ass out of u and me”? I definitely felt like that as I read Beyond the Rice Fields. My assumptions came over the race of Fara and Tsito. As it was a story of a slave owners’ daughter and her relationship with a slave, before reading Beyond the Rice Fields I presumed that Fara was white while Tsito was Black and it’d present a lot of extra problematic elements and power imbalances in a relationship like that. This wasn’t the case though as while naturally there was a power imbalance as Tsito was a slave, Fara and her family were also Black. There’s also the fact that they were both children when Tsito was brought into Fara’s home. Fara was seven and Tsito was nine, meaning that while Tsito certainly had jobs around the home to do they grew up together and he was treated more like family by Fara and her mother and grandmother, than just a slave. It’s a different look at the dynamic between slave and master compared to what I’d seen before, and seeing Tsito’s affection grow not just for Fara but for the other women in the family was sweet.
Beyond the Rice Fields is told from the perspectives of both Fara and Tsito and each perspective has a distinctive voice. It’s interesting how the chapters from Tsito’s point of view feature a lot more discussions on politics than Fara’s early on, though perhaps that’s to be expected as he’s a slave and has to be aware and consider the rules of society a lot of more as he tries to learn different skills in order to earn his freedom. With Fara, her chapters and perspective are a lot more focussed on emotions, she makes mistakes that Tsito never would as he’s had to be a lot more aware of the world than she has.
I think Beyond the Rice Fields spans almost twenty years as Fara and Tsito grow up together, grow a part and start to come back together. Naturally a lot of characters are mentioned throughout this time, some drop in and out of the story and as some have similar sounding names it can be hard to remember who is who especially as the novel doesn’t offer any context clues. It’s also difficult at times to judge how much time has passed and how old the characters are supposed to be. Sometimes a chapter begins with something along the lines of “that continued for ten yeas” which can be jarring as you suddenly need to age up the characters in your mind.
One of the most interesting yet also sometimes frustrating thing in Beyond the Rice Fields was the clash between religion and tradition. Beyond the Rice Fields is set in the 1800’s and as Christian missionaries attempt to convert the people; the backlash is extreme. The rituals that people have to go through to prove their innocence to any sins they’re accused of seem to be in such a way that they are doomed to fail. People are pretty much poisoned and if they can expel the poison that means they’re innocent? Those scenes are graphic and frustrating as it’s pure chance whether someone’s body can withstand the things it’s put through but the results are seen as concrete proof of someone’s innocence or guilt.
Beyond the Rice Fields is an interesting and compelling read. I enjoyed the dual perspectives as they both offered a lot of different ideas and experiences. The ever growing romance between Fara and Tsito was believable too and they were a relationship that I couldn’t help but root for even when a lot of things were working against them.