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When I open the shop
by Romesh Dissanayake

'Acutely observed' comedy and pathos in this debut novel.

By March 15, 2024April 9th, 2024No Comments

Romesh Dissanayake’s debut novel When I open the shop begins a few months after the death of Devendra’s mother. Hospo worker Devendra is a proficient cook so decides to ‘lean into the food-loving immigrant stereotype’ and open a small noodle shop, which he subsequently runs with the help of a single employee, Mario. Keeping the shop afloat proves to be a perilous task and his quest towards stability throws up acutely observed, startling and often hilarious shenanigans, some to do with eggs and rice balls, others occurring outside the premises such as an awkward hook up with an old flame.

Dissanayake’s poetry was featured in A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (2021), and he won the 2022 Modern Letters Fiction Prize from Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington with this novel’s manuscript. Its deceptively simple free-form looseness is signalled from the starting gun: When I open the shop looks less like a title and more like what a writer ends up with when they forget to name a document and Microsoft Word does it instead. Throw in the major decision to start a business dreamed up while ‘on one of my walks through the city’, a gathering of ancestors (written as ‘anxestors’ in the novel) who tantalisingly show themselves reflected in sliding doors, and a long-form poem that pops up like a theatre interlude, and it all appears about as carefully plotted as Devendra’s doomed road trip to visit his aunty.

But although his main guy is revealed as a terrible person for a road trip, Dissanayake is wide awake and has an eye on what’s ahead. It’s an exhilarating read, the general vibe of the novel akin to chancing on a frozen lake and deciding then and there to get your skates on. But there’s unpredictability in the firmness of the ice and fascinating things lurk underneath; those figure-eight loops demand rigorous attention to craft.

The noodle shop does a good trade initially but then patronage sharply drops. At its lowest point Devendra is trapped listening to a customer whose ramblings start with ‘See, unlike you, I was born here. Raised here’ and carries on with such gems as ‘Fuckin’ fairy’ and ‘I’ve got a thing for Asians. They just do it for me’ – perfectly evoking a particular kind of horror that owner-operator eateries risk every time they flip their signs to ‘Open’.

Devendra hooks up with someone who broke his heart years ago. It could be the perfect reunion, but the objects in her apartment destroy that dream.

I drop the slipper and place my hands under her butt. So what if she’s not who I remember? So what if I can’t breathe? I’m one Live, Laugh, Love away from passing out. But I’m here now.

Just as I am preparing to settle in, she comes – stroking my hair, pulling me up. ‘That was great. Thank you. Just what I needed. Do you want me to? Go down on you?’

‘Ah, sure.’

‘Are? you? sure?’

‘Yeah. I mean, no. It’s just – the slipper, Aisha.’

‘Slipper? What slipper?’

The road trip that Devendra and Mario embark on is similarly comic, but also peppered with surprise, pathos and a sense of the divine, featuring Mario in an epic character arc. Another aspect of the spiritual manifests as the ancestors, blinking in the reflections on the sliding doors, ‘sitting there all in a line as far as I can see’. They critique mother and son on their cooking methods, smoke pipes, play card games, and talk family histories. ‘No matter what you’ve been through, we endured it with you,’ they say, suggesting that they’re there to ease Devendra’s mother’s passage.

The shift that occurs when someone becomes carer for the person who looked after them as a child is captured in arresting, meticulously placed prose, as are the days and weeks following her death.

The bitter qualities of her former self were beginning to show. That’s what threw me off. All of a sudden she was back. In the kitchen, hobbling around. Peeling carrots, boiling potatoes, folding used Glad Wrap. I really thought she was beginning to heal and recover. Finally. Finally, I could stop treating her like a child. Playing keeper is tough.

Keeper of meds. Keeper of keys. Cleaner of hallways.

Human nightlight. Alarm clock.

For months I had just said okay, sure to everything. The hallucinations, the ghosts in the corner, the false trips to the bathroom, the delirious cravings for fried liver.

It’s left to Devendra to arrange the funeral. He keeps it simple, only inviting a few of her close friends. He doesn’t bother telling his work the news, texting them instead to let them know he won’t be back. He also decides against contacting extended family back in Sri Lanka. There’s one significant person he doesn’t attempt to reach. ‘I did consider trying to track down my father but then decided against it. It wasn’t my job to tell him’. Devendra’s relationship with his father is beautifully laid out in all its complexities, one that goes beyond plain abandonment. Even as a child, Devendra recognised the racism that his father faced:

Mum convinced him to join a social cricket team to integrate himself through a sport that he loved. We’d all go to his games on weekends. I’d watch as he huddled round teammates much bigger than him, and notice how the other players excluded him – pushing him out like no one had done back home. Even though I’d seen him hit glorious cover drives and silky late cuts, they put him last in the batting order. He walked with diminishing enthusiasm from one end of the field to the other, over and over, dragging his feet, and avoided looking at us, freezing cold and shivering on the sideline. By the time they let him have a bowl, the game had already been decided. His team had won, but the whole car ride home he acted like they had lost.

It’s a stark contrast to their previous life, where drunken uncles played Beatles covers, the ground was alive with weaver ants and seasons were marked by the monsoons. It’s also nothing like his father’s current life – eating prawns in Barcelona, crossing to Tangier by ferry, touring Western Australia, lying awake at night worrying about the worsening situation back in Sri Lanka.

His dad apologises for leaving, but Devendra’s reached a point where he’s moved beyond the day-to-day grind of running a shop. Instead, he’s already shifting into his future self and scooping up the collective history, spirit and insight of his whakapapa, pouring and stirring it into his own accumulation of experience: ‘What kind of ancestor would I be, I told him, if I held on to all of this hate?’

When I open the shop

by Romesh Dissanayake

Te Herenga Waka University Press

ISBN: 9781776921300

Published: March 2024

Format: Paperback, 224 pages

Angelique Kasmara

Angelique Kasmara’s fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in NZ Listener, Newsroom, Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her debut novel Isobar Precinct (2021, The Cuba Press) won the 2017 Wallace Foundation Prize, was shortlisted for the 2022 Ngaio Marsh Awards (Best First Novel) and will be published by Bolinda in Australia in 2024.