Pip Squeak Wednesday, Sep 12 2007 

Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip

There is a scene in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip where Matilda, the novel’s (then) 13-year old protagonist, is caught writing the name of Pip (from Dickens’ Great Expectations) next to the names of her ancestors, which she’s been asked to memorize. Scolded by her mother for sticking the name of a make-believe person next to those of her kin, Matilda replies that though Pip isn’t a relative, she still feels closer to him than to all the strangers whose names she’s been made to write in the sand.

I know exactly how she feels. Pip, or rather the specter of Pip that hangs over Jones’ novel, is about the only warm or believable character in the whole book – the only one I can bring myself to feel anything for, and that mostly for Dickens’ sake. Everyone else in this book is so two-dimensional, so much a stock character, that it’s a wonder that they manage to stay upright when a wind blows across the island.

Jones’ Mister Pip is a feather-weight of a book whose chief merit is that it’s really, really short. In fact, even calling it a novel feels like an exaggeration – it’s more like a collection of crumbs and odd tit-bits left behind from the great feast of the Dickensian novel.
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Animal’s Spirit Monday, Sep 10 2007 

Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People

Serre, fourmillant, comme un million d’helminthes,
Dans nos cervaux ribote un pueple de Demons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes. [1]

– Baudelaire

[plot spoilers]

In the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, from which the quote above is taken, Baudelaire gives us a litany of nightmarish images, then concludes by speaking of one “more damned than all” – l’Ennui. Yet boredom is the one monster you’re unlikely to encounter in Indra Sinha’s magnificent if somewhat overwrought novel Animal’s People, a book that more than makes up in ambition what it lacks in finesse.
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Ho Hum Friday, Aug 31 2007 

Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl

[some spoilers]

Given the hype and prestige surrounding the Booker Prize, I suppose it’s only inevitable that we should see the advent of the Booker Prize Book. Not a book that wins the prize, you understand, but a book that seems to have been written for the prize, just as some movies seem made for the Oscars. You know the type – usually set in or around World War II and featuring a bleak countryside, a family (often missing at least one parent) scratching out a barren existence on a farm, a general air of sexual frustration, a main protagonist dreaming of escape from his / her small town existence, a colorful cast of villagers, some form of sexual assault or entanglement, guilt, shame, nationalism and / or faith, an unlikely friendship / love affair, partial redemption, epiphany, a sense of loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the finest novels of the last fifty years have been written around precisely these themes. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl, however, reads like nothing so much as a haphazard amalgam of these stock elements, welded together with considerable skill but very little inspiration, to create a novel that is not so much bad as plain dull. It feels unfair to use the word formulaic for a book so painstakingly written, so rich in prose, but it’s the word that, reading the novel, comes most often to mind. (more…)

A Real Find Tuesday, Aug 21 2007 

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost

When I was nine years old a couple of friends and I formed our own detective agency and set out to solve crime. The fact that we didn’t actually have a crime to solve didn’t deter us; the way we saw it, there were thousands of crimes that went undetected everyday, so all we had to do was find one. That way, not only would we get the glory from actually solving the mystery, we would also get the credit for discovering the crime in the first place.

Armed with this philosophy and nurtured on a steady diet of Enid Blyton’s and Three Investigators, we proceeded to scour our neighborhood for ‘clues’. We searched systematically through the local rubbish dump, and were genuinely surprised to find no severed body parts. We spent hours tailing unsuspecting strangers, right up to the point when they turned suspicious. We climbed over a neighbor’s wall into the one vacant house on the street, convinced that it was a den for drug-runners and / or smugglers, and proceeded to dust the windows with talcum powder in search of fingerprints. Our adventures lasted three months – by the end of which time our locality’s obstinate law-abidingness coupled with growing parental concerns about what we were up to put an end to our sleuthing. In the years since, I’ve lost touch with my fellow detectives (to the point where I don’t even remember their names) and had almost forgotten about the whole project.

Until, that is, I was reminded of it by Catherine O’Flynn’s marvellous debut novel What Was Lost. Here at last is the kind of book that makes reading through the Booker long list worth it – a novel that is at once heartbreaking and hilarious, a scathing critique of our consumer society married to a bittersweet meditation on loss and regret. Part Office Space, part To Kill a Mockingbird, What Was Lost is a delicious treat of a book; one that suggests that O’Flynn is someone we’re going to be reading for a long time to come.
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A life in fragments Thursday, Aug 16 2007 

Anne Enright’s The Gathering

“This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family – a whole fucking country – drowning in shame.”

Anne Enright, The Gathering


Another day, another Booker prize long list book, another novel about a family mourning for the loss of a loved one. Sigh.

This time around the deceased is one Liam Hegarty, and the person mourning him, or at least the person whose mourning we are witness to, is his younger sister Veronica. Liam, a long time alcoholic and quintessential black sheep, has drowned himself in the sea off Brighton, and his death shatters his younger sister, who has always been close to him (they are less than a year apart in age). What follows is 250 pages of fractured, hysterical narrative as Veronica tries to make sense of Liam’s death and the life that preceded it. There are many things to confront here: a murky secret from their childhood together, from a time when, abandoned by their parents, they lived for a while in their grandmother’s house; the myriad jealousies and rivalries of a family of twelve children; Veronica’s growing recognition that her own life, though perfectly pleasant and successful by every conventional standard, has somehow turned out to be unsatisfying and false. (more…)

Time it was, oh what a time it was Tuesday, Aug 14 2007 

Michael Redhill’s Consolation

They die – the dead return not – Misery
Sits near an open grave and calls them over,
A Youth with hoary hair and haggard eye –
They are the names of kindred, friend and lover
Which he so feebly called – they all are gone!

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Preserve your memories”, the song says, “they’re all that’s left you”. Michael Redhill’s Consolation is about precisely that struggle: the fight to redeem the past, hold on to the dead, keep the image of our loved ones fresh in our minds. It is a novel about the terrible tug-of-war between human memory and the forgetful earth, about the extremes to which our hunger for what has been lost will take us, how it will make us scratch about in the dirt for the smallest crumb of what once was.
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By this still hearth, among these barren crags Monday, Jun 18 2007 

Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses

In what I’ve always considered his finest poem, Alfred Tennyson offers us a unforgettable portrait of a Ulysses who, having seen and known “cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments” and having “drunk delight of battle…far on the ringing plains of windy Troy” now finds himself trapped in domestic suffocation, “an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, matched with an aged wife”. It is a life that Tennyon’s Ulysses finds unbearable, and it isn’t long before he sails off into the sunset on yet another quest, leaving his kingdom to “my son, mine own Telemachus”, who, he argues, is better suited to govern the kingdom anyway. It is a glorious escape, a rising of the heroic spirit to its true proportions, and it would be a dull heart indeed (not to mention a deaf one) that did not beat faster on hearing Ulysses’s rousing call “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.

But this, after all, is only one side of the story. Stirring as Ulysses’ embarkation into the unknown is, it is also an abandonment – one that comes close on the heels of thirteen years spent gadding about while his wife and son struggled to keep their home from being taken over. There is something deeply chauvinistic and self-centered about Ulysses’ heroics, his prodigious spirit masks a contempt for things womanly and domestic, a restlessness with the idea of commitment, of being tied down, that is, alas, too much a part of what we consider masculine. No one, after all, can accuse Ulysses (at least not the Ulysses of Tennyson’s poem) of being that most unglamorous of all things – a family man.

But what happens to the people that Ulysses leaves behind? To the debris of wife and family left trailing in the wake of these adventures? That is the question that lies at the heart of Per Petterson’s IMPAC winning novel Out Stealing Horses (translated by Anne Born). (more…)

The Dark Side Sunday, Jun 10 2007 

Haruki Murakami’s After Dark

“You are the town and we are the clock.
We are the guardians of the gate in the rock
The Two
On your left and on your right
In the day and in the night,
We are watching you.”

– W.H. Auden, The Two

That sense of dread, of something sinister lurking beneath the surface of things, is the keynote of Haruki Murakami’s new novel After Dark, a searing and magical book that is part poetry and part noir, like reading a combination of Resnais, Godard and Hideo Nakata in novel form, with shades of Bunuel thrown in for good measure. Set in the witching hours between midnight and dawn, After Dark takes its main protagonist, the nineteen year old Mari, on a Persephone like descent into an urban underworld, a landscape of bars and seedy love hotels and all night supermarkets that is at once a kind of inverted negative of the city and an existential dystopia, a place that is both science fiction and frighteningly everyday. Add to this a second line of narrative that could come straight out of Beckett, and you have a minor miracle of a novel by someone who is indisputably one of the greatest writers of our time. (more…)

Average Tuesday, May 22 2007 

Amitabha Bagchi’s Above Average

I’ve generally stayed away from the recent spate of ‘IIT’ books, having winced through a chapter or two of Chetan Bhagat, but Bagchi’s book came well recommended, plus a book about an opera-loving rock-crazed teenager growing up in Mayur Vihar in the 90’s comes (literally) too close to home to be ignored.

Calling Above Average a novel, is, to me, something of a misnomer. It’s more like a collection of modestly well written vignettes loosely cobbled together into a book. The overall effect is of spending an afternoon with an old friend listening to him reminisce about the good old days. A few of this friend’s war stories are genuinely entertaining, but most have only the value of nostalgia, and you listen to them politely, because, well, the person telling them is such a nice guy.

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Sins of the Father Wednesday, Mar 14 2007 

Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father

[some spoilers]

I’ll be honest. Till a week ago, I’d never heard of Akhil Sharma. Then his name popped up on the Granta list of promising young novelists, and I figured it was a shame that there was an Indian born writer, writing about India, potentially in the same league as Grushin and Shteyngart, who I’d never read.

An Obedient Father is the story of Ram Karan, a petty official in Delhi’s education department and a petty lowlife in everything else. Ram Karan is the ‘money-man’ for his superior, Mr. Gupta, who in turn is a minor cog in the greater political machine that is the Congress Party. As chief factotum, Ram Karan’s job is to bully principals of schools under the education department’s jurisdiction into giving ‘donations’ to the department that will eventually find their way into the Congress’s electoral fund. The story opens in May 1991 (exactly two days before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination) with the Congress rallying to meet the emerging threat of the BJP in the upcoming General Elections. This election will come to occupy centre stage in the novel, as Ram Karan’s boss defects from the Congress to stand for election on a BJP ticket, setting off a sequence of political machinations involving violence, larceny, betrayal and murder, all of which, as a miniscule player in a high-stakes game, Ram Karan will have to negotiate without being trampled.

This is only part of the novel’s plot however. It’s real tension lies in Ram Karan’s home life, where his daughter Anita, having been recently widowed, has come back to live with her father, bringing her nine year old daughter Asha. We soon learn, however, that Ram Karan had raped Anita (his own daughter) when she was a little girl, emotionally damaging her for life. This crime has lain dormant for years, hushed up by shame and fear of social censure, but when Anita catches Ram Karan making advances to her daughter (his granddaughter) her barely repressed outrage explodes, and father and daughter find themselves trapped in a bitter contest of suspicion and accusation on her side and self-justification on his. Ram Karan eventually dies, but the trauma of his abuse continues to poison his family.

In its exploration of taboos, in its nightmarish pathology of dependence and hatred, the novel is horrifying. Ram Karan and Anita seem trapped in a claustrophobia of self-loathing – forced together by necessity and hating each other for what has been done to / by them, they exist in a wild see-saw of recrimination and grudging reconciliation, made sharper by the ever present sexual threat that Ram Karan represents to the innocent Asha. Ram Karan, in particular, is a novelistic triumph. In him, Sharma has created an exquisite monster, a sort of domestic Caliban. Because the story is told largely through the eyes of Ram Karan, it’s easy to get swept up in the tide of his self-pity, and Sharma cleverly alternates the damning facts of this man’s brutishness with insights into his insecurity and vulnerability, painting a compelling portrait of a truly pathetic human being. Yet it is this very mediocrity of Ram Karan that gives him his particular power to inspire pity – he is such a miserable excuse for a human being that we can’t help feeling at least a little sorry for him, and have to remind ourselves of the terrible things he’s done in order to harden our hearts against him. This is Anita’s dilemma (made worse by the fact that she’s financially dependent on him and related to him by blood), and it also the reader’s. (more…)

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