Ivy on Stone

By Matthew Thomas, Matahari Books, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2023.

“Ivy on Stone” by Matthew Thomas, published by Matahari Books in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2023, is a ground breaking addition to the evolving genre of grief memoirs, particularly in the context of traditional societies where grieving is often a private affair. Unlike the sombre tone often associated with such narratives, Thomas’s book is a vibrant exploration, blending light-hearted moments with profound reflections on life’s fleeting nature and our cosmic existence.

The narrative kicks off with a 29-year-old Indian lawyer in Kuala Lumpur, navigating the complexities of an arranged marriage prompted by societal expectations.

What begins as a reluctant promise transforms into a poignant love story between the protagonist and Anne Verghese, affectionately known as “D.” The author skilfully weaves their journey through the lens of a Malayalee Indian diasporic community in modern Malaysia, offering glimpses into premarital norms and the challenges of a joint family setup.

The storytelling unfolds seamlessly, delving into existential questions arising from deep grief, childhood memories shared with his beloved, and the joyous adventures they experienced together. Thomas takes readers on a global journey, vividly describing their travels to Africa, Southern Spain, and even Chennai. The descriptions of locales, such as the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro or the historical Alhambra Palace, come to life under the author’s skilful pen.

The book’s charm lies not only in its travelogue-like narrative but also in the diverse characters encountered along the way. Thomas introduces resilient immigrants surviving in the informal economies of major cities, adding a layer of depth to the exploration of the South Asian diaspora in Malaysia. The reader is treated to enchanting stories, such as the unexpected voice behind “O Sole Mio” in Venice or the humorous encounter with an apothecary in Chennai.

Throughout the book the author paints beautiful pictures of the various scenes he encountered in life as he reminisces about his early life and the death of a pet dog named Brownie which left him in an existential angst. Juxtaposing his readings on the subject of death with his long discussions with his mother who believes in the afterlife, Thomas asks various questions about why his wife Anne who died of cancer at a relatively young age was taken away from him in the prime of her life.

The book, which is a fast read, seamlessly meanders its way through existential questions which emerge from deep grief, childhood reminiscences which he shared with his new love when they met, and the fun they had after they got married and visited many countries together.

In terms of travelling to new parts of the world, Thomas takes us on a trip into the heart of Africa at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania where we encounter the so-called “Roof of Africa”. He describes the majesty of the mountain as seen from a one-engine plane circling its rim, and the vastness of the savannah below teeming with game ranging from elephants, buffaloes and zebra to lions, leopards, and cheetah.

The peaceful and taciturn description belies the tension that preceded his visit to Africa where, on arrival in Kenya, his passport gets stolen leading to deep anguish and fear only to be requited within days by the warmth he experiences in Tanzania from people living in poverty but in the very lap of nature. For his beloved D, this was one of the finest visits they had ever undertaken in life.

Thomas proves himself to be a master storyteller, captivating readers with both his globetrotting adventures and the nuanced portrayal of characters. The book’s ability to sustain the reader’s interest makes it appealing to diasporic Indians in former British colonies and beyond. It  is  a wonderful and entertaining read for all time as shown by  its universal appeal which transcends moments of grief and loss for which it is particularly soothing . 

Soli Osman, Human Rights lawyer, and author of forthcoming book “Under the Mango Tree.”

Book available in kindle and paperback on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/BOCGYYRFF?ref_= pe_3052080_397514860