Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things had the strangest effect on me as I read it. Just a few paragraphs and I relaxed into the story. I felt at peace reading the story, even when it explored the many murders that Mrs. Small Garden, or Felicia, honored one night of the year. Perhaps it is the detailed descriptions of the fauna, the old folklore and mythology associated with the shells and landmarks, or the easy comfort with ghosts who hang around the family home. I don’t know why, but it is a book that made me happy.
That’s sort of an odd thing because Grandmother did not much care for happiness. She was unhappy when her granddaughter was named Felicia, but her daughter-in-law carried the day as she always did, to the point of taking Felicia and her husband away, leaving the Grandmother alone in the small bay with the servants and the curiosities.
Years later and Felicia returns with her son, Willem. He becomes one of the murdered whose death she honors every year, along with several people from the Outer Bay. The heart of the story though is the Small Garden and the women who tend it, grandmother and Felicia and how they keep on living.
This is one of those magical stories where it feels like nothing is happening, but really everything is happening. There are several murders that are recounted, not because there is a mystery, but because the dead should be honored. This is not a book about murder, it’s about remembering, about enumerating the hundred times a hundred things that make not just a life, but a garden, a bay and an island.
As the philosopher Ts’en Shen said, “When the ten thousand things have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been.”
I loved this book, but trying to tell you what it is about is foolish, it is about ten thousand things.