Let me begin by saying I owe you all an apology, for I have not finished reading the book I’m supposed to write about this week.

I don’t actually have an acceptable excuse, except to say that spring has arrived where I am, in Washington DC, and I’ve been seeking every excuse to be outdoors soaking in the warmth. Every spare moment of the last few weeks has been filled with walks and outdoor lolling and cherry blossom viewing and food truck dining, and I say without a scrap of shame that I haven’t read anything more than the first few chapters of my book.

This disproportionate enjoyment of the sun isn’t something we tropically-raised Malaysians understand very well, of course. If anything, back home, it being warm outside is more reason to stay indoors where it’s cool. I hear, in fact, that Malaysia is undergoing a heat wave as I write this, and trust me when I say I haven’t been away long enough to forget what a sweltering hot day back in Kuala Lumpur can be like.

But after four months of bundling up in layers and scurrying from building to building to avoid being out in the cold too long, there is immense luxury in allowing the sun’s rays and a cool breeze – as opposed to winter’s freezing winds – to finally touch your skin.

And while I’ve faithfully carried my intended book with me everywhere, I’ve somehow ended up people-watching in a cafe, day-dreaming on the bus, or snoozing in a park – instead of reading like I normally would.

But truly, there may not be a better book for the spring time than Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove And Cinnamon! A few chapters in, and already I feel a palpable warmth exuding from its pages. As one might guess from the title, this is a spicy, sensual novel, filled with a vividness of phrase and a love for decadent detail.

Set in Ilheus, Brazil, in 1925, during the cacao crop boom, the story is spun around café owner Nacib, desperately in need of a cook when his longtime employee leaves, and Gabriela, a poor migrant worker whom he hires. Their relationship develops in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways, and Amado’s ability to weave together both passion and humour in his writing is absolutely delightful.

Beyond these protagonists, however, what truly keeps me interested in Gabriela, Clove And Cinnamon is the author’s depiction of Ilheus and its people. A town on the brink of development but still wrapped in its traditional ways, it is filled by Amado with one intriguing character after another: from the cacao planters who’ve styled themselves as colonels, each with his own eccentricities, and the unshakeable town matriarchs, to the colourful patrons at Nacib’s café.

It is both an homage to and satire of what was actually Amado’s own birthplace, and I love that for all its literary prowess, the novel is also intent on being a tremendously enjoyable read.

Now, please excuse me while I go lie under a tree somewhere with Gabriela, Clove And Cinnamon for company.


Sharmilla Ganesan is currently a Fulbright/Hubert H. Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland in the United States. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.