‘Beyond the Rice Fields” by Magalasy author Naivo is the first novel from Madagascar to ever be translated into English and, if Naivo’s debut is any indication, it certainly won’t be the last.
Set in the 1800s, “Beyond the Rice Fields” is the story of Tsito, a slave, and Fara, his master’s daughter. While Tsito’s main duty is to serve and protect the family, he and Fara are largely raised together: playing when chores are through, attending school when they are able, and confiding in one another about their hopes for the future.
As they get older, Tsito dreams of securing his freedom and one day making Fara his wife. But the world Tsito knows is changing rapidly, as a stark divide has formed between the new Christian missionaries and the queen, creating “deep-seated animosities that would eventually tear (the) community apart.”
More than a love story or a coming-of-age tale, “Beyond the Rice Fields” is a sweeping narrative of a perilous time in Malagasy history, told from the perspective of the most vulnerable. The novel shifts between narrators and time periods, and action often pauses for interjected stories from Fara’s grandmother of Fara’s ancestry and how she was saved from a ruthless seer by a missionary. These asides provide the necessary grounding for the novel, while also establishing a subtle point: Without the tales of the ancestors, we would not feel the full power of the current struggle.
This beautiful, powerful novel is not without its complications. For those not familiar with Magalasy history, “Beyond the Rice Fields” provides an opportunity to learn more — if readers are willing to use the helpful guide at the back and give themselves over to a new method of storytelling. The novel’s narrative structure and number of characters may prove daunting for some readers, but reading this beautiful, commanding novel is an experience to be savored, not rushed. Those who take the time to relish it fully will be justly rewarded.