Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lowland by Juhmpa Lahiri

Udayan and Subhash are brothers born fifteen months apart in the 1950s, in Calcutta. Their childhoods are happy and unremarkable and they are close. In their late teens they develop different interests, with Subhash concentrating on his studies and Udayan becoming active in an emergent political movement – the Naxalites. What follows is a family saga of profound sadness. This review is impossible to write without spoilers.

Udayan, who is exciting, passionate but selfish, marries a woman of similar political outlook called Gauri, and becomes increasingly involved with his friends and comrades, working towards a Maoist revolution. In the meantime, dull and staid Subhash goes to Rhode Island in the USA to pursue his studies in environmental science, eventually becoming an academic.

Udayan is killed one day by police, in front of his parents and Gauri, who, unbeknownst to anyone, is carrying their baby. Subhash comes back to Calcutta and decides to marry Gauri and take her back to the US to save her from the life of a widow with his parents (who, in their grief resent her and show her no warmth) and also to raise her and her brother’s child as his own. Their façade of a marriage unsurprisingly fails and Gauri, who by now is an academic in philosophy, ends up abandoning both Subhash and her daughter Bela when Bela is 10 years old. The book went downhill from here.   

All the characters in this book seem unable to get past their past. And this ruined the book for me. Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite authors, but this was a disappointment. I enjoyed the book until very near the end. I think I just got tired of the characters’ complete sadness, coldness and apparent inability to change. Lahiri’s characters are normally more complex and even a little more likable than the ones in The Lowland. I tried very hard to like Gauri and succeeded at times, but most of the time was just appalled at how lonely her existence was (self-imposed), and how cold and callous she was. Subhash was dull – probably the most believable of the characters. Bela also lacked any warmth and was, surprisingly for Lahiri, a bit of a caricature with her tattoo, nomadic lifestyle and ‘don’t-let-anyone-near-me’ approach to life.

I have read reviews of Lahiri’s work that suggest she should stick to short stories. Certainly the most memorable of her work I have read is a collection of short stories called Unaccustomed Earth, which is one of my all-time-top-ranking reads. The Namesake was good, but Unaccustomed Earth was better. The Lowlands did not quite satisfy the requirements of a fulfilling and engaging sage because the characters were too static and too sad. The book nevertheless contained the author’s trademark style of placid steadiness and evocative description, which kept me turning the pages. There was, however, a little bit too much description in some parts and towards the end I was a little bored.

Lahiri’s broad knowledge of a number of different things such as Rhode Island, earth sciences and India’s political history is very impressive. A lot of research has clearly gone into writing this book. One of the most interesting parts of this book for me was learning about the Naxalite movement, about which I only have minimal knowledge. It was bizarre to imagine violent political clashes occurring in the beautiful and picturesque area of Darjeeling, where I holidayed early this year (and was surprised at the heavily militarised presence…I understand this better now).

The Carpathians by Janet Frame

I always feel a bit dumb when I read Janet Frame. I feel like I am missing the main message—as though I’m really only scratching the surface and missing out on all the layers underneath of rich and complex meaning.

The Carpathians is a story about language. I think it’s a story about the power of language and the importance of words and language. Mattina is an independently wealthy New Yorker with a penchant for ‘learning’ about other cultures. By this I don’t mean she is an anthropologist (although she might think she is). She will go and ‘live amongst’ people from a culture different to hers for a couple of months in order to ‘get to know’ the people. She also has a habit of acquiring real estate. These two pastimes hint at an absence in her; in her life, in her heart. But there is nothing in her life lacking. She wants for nothing at all. She has so much money that she is able to buy an island; she is married to a man who she loves and who loves her; she has a son and at some stage in her life also enjoyed a lover.

Her yearning to learn about other cultures takes her to Puamahara, a small town in New Zealand. She is on a quest to discover more about the legend of the Memory Flower and Galaxy Star. She moves into Kowhai Street (we learn at the end of the story it is pronounced Korfai!) and over the course of two months gets to know her neighbours. They are a pretty standard bunch—elderly widows, young families and the like. They all claim to be from somewhere else (not here), leading Mattina to sense an atmosphere of impermanence and rootlessness.

From early in her stay in Kowhai Street, Mattina feels a strange presence in her rented house but learns to live with it. One night towards the end of her stay something quite horrifying happens. And I’m not entirely sure about the symbolism of it. It’s something to do with the disappearance of language and memory.

As a writer, Janet Frame’s raison d’étre is based on words, language and memory, or the memory that words and language create/express. So she herself is perhaps in this book, maybe in Mattina’s husband, or the Dinny Wheatstone, the slightly unhinged ‘imposter’ author. Matina’s husband Jake was a writer who wrote a bestseller in his early 20s and then struggled for 30 years to write his next. It was Matina’s son, John Henry, who wrote a book 30 years later, also in his early 20s.

I enjoyed getting to know the characters in this book and I also found the story intriguing. A couple of times, especially towards the end, I thought, ‘I’ll have to read this again because I don’t know what she’s trying to get at here’. I still don’t fully understand what the Memory Flower or the Galaxy Star is. Postmodernists would love this.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

It’s a familiar plotline, the ‘what if?’ The exploration of a story of parallel life courses that evolved from an original singular course at one particular point in time because of a crucial ‘life-changing’ decision.

Lionel Shriver has once again written a book I hated but couldn’t put down. Well, actually towards the end I almost did put it down, but thought no, I’ve come this far, must push on. I don’t necessarily feel that reading this book a waste of my time, but I am glad I’ve finished it. The characters, in usual Shriver style, are horrible and completely unlikeable. I’ve read reviews that call her characters ‘complicated’. Yep, fair enough, but why do they also have to be so horrible? This will most likely be the last of Shriver’s book I read.

Irina McGovern is an American woman in her early 40s living in London with her partner Lawrence, who is also American and in his 40s. Their relationship is one of comfortable stability. They’ve been together for 10 years and have their daily routine down pat. Lawrence goes out to work in the mornings in his job as terrorism research analyst (or something like that) and Irina stays home to work on children’s book illustrations. When Lawrence comes home they have a bowl of popcorn and watch tv. Then Irina cooks dinner and they eat together, while watching tv. Then they go to bed and sometimes have sex (about 3 or 4 times a week apparently). The sex, by the sounds of it, is dreadful. They have got into a pattern where they have sex the same way every time—from behind, in bed, in the dark. (Sorry for the gory details, but sex is a pretty major focus in this book...) For Irina, this is a source of sadness because they never look into each other’s eyes while making love. But she also seems to be happy with it because it’s regular and it’s happening (there’s that ‘complicated character’ for ya). To make things worse they don’t kiss. Lawrence hasn’t kissed Irina on her lips for years and when Irina attempted, Lawrence balked. Now this is a little unbelievable. It’s fucked up. I can’t actually believe relationships like this exist. But there’s a reason this sounds so dire. It’s so her relationship with Ramsey (the parallel plot) can be written in the other extreme (heaps of hot sex and mouth kissing and passionate arguments that end in more hot sex blah blah blah). And this is one of the major flaws of this book. The differences between the parallel worlds are delivered to us in earth movers and dumped heavily and loudly at our feet. There is no nuance or sensitivity in this. Shriver delivers her message with as much sensitivity as a sledgehammer.

Ramsey Acton is the husband of Jude, who writes the books that Irina illustrates. He is also a champion snooker player (weird choice, and the snooker analogies get very tired, very quickly). Every year the four of them celebrate Ramsey’s birthday together. This is the only time they meet. Again, weird and implausible. After Ramsey and Jude split up and Irina and Jude have a falling out Lawrence and Irina get into a habit of celebrating Ramsey’s birthday just the three of them. On the third year, Lawrence is out of town on Ramsey’s birthday so Irina and Ramsey celebrate on their own. This is the moment when Irina takes or doesn’t take that step that will change the course of her life.

So from here on, each chapter is told in parallel. I liked this structure—it kept me wanting to know what happened next and what was happening in the ‘other reality’. But the realities were crafted in a way that was quite predicable. If something happened in one plot, the near opposite would happen in the other plot. This was boring and unimaginative and had me rolling my eyes in some parts: “Lionel, do you really think we need to be spoon fed?”

The 9.11 theme was pointless and cheap. The Cookbook Collector, which I have also reviewed, took the same cheap shot and as a result lost even more worth in my eyes. Tacking on 9.11 to the story for no good reason just reeks of greedy and lazy opportunism. It added nothing to the story and was actually pretty self-indulgent I thought.

Having said all this, I actually finished the book, so there must have been some redeeming qualities. The thing is, I can’t put my finger on what they were. I did feel I was getting progressively dumber with each page – maybe I needed to give my brain a rest and I read it at just the right time!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering by Michael J. Sandel

Short, to the point, and written in a very accessible style, The Case Against Perfection raises interesting questions about the pursuit of human perfection. Sandel makes his arguments extremely well by suggesting them, identifying possible oppositional arguments and then countering those oppositional arguments in a precise and comprehensive manner. I feel like I can learn from his writing style and adopt this style of argument in my own academic writing. His ability to make a very complex issue accessible is amazing. 

While reading this book, I found myself asking friends random questions like, “If you were pregnant and found out your baby was going to have down syndrome, what would you do?” I find this question and others like this raised by Sandel extremely interesting. Sandel argues that if we go down the road of eliminating apparently ‘imperfect’ people, like those with downs (a path we are well on the way to) we may end up producing a society that is competitive and less forgiving. If we are compelled to ‘get rid’ of imperfections in babies before they are born then people will be judged for not being perfect. Parents will also (and already are) be judged for failing to eliminate the imperfection in their child. Adults who fail to do anything to get braces on their teeth because they don’t really mind having crooked teeth will be regarded as freaks, athletes who reject performance enhancers will be dropped from the team (apparently this already happens in America), deaf parents who choose to have deaf babies will be criticised for not allowing their children a greater chance in life. These are just some examples. 

I came away from this book pretty much agreeing with its fundamental argument. There is something very unsettling about human beings’ pursuit of perfection. It’s hard to articulate logically what that is, but Sandel does it well. Perhaps we like to believe that it is human nature to want to master something (actually I think that’s more like imperialism than human nature…did the Indigenous Australians try to ‘master’ the land?), but something very valuable will be lost if we continue to ‘master’ biology and genetics. That something is human beings’ capacity to understand and appreciate that we are NOT in control of everything and there are bigger things out there at work. This is not necessarily ‘God’. Acknowledging that we cannot necessarily be in control of everything engenders a humility which is good for society. It fosters social solidarity to improve political and social structures. Rather than ‘fixing’ the individual to fit into a flawed society, working together to address social problems should be the priority. While adjusting nature to fit into the social world we have created may seem empowering, in fact, 
'Changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world, and deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. Rather than employ our genetic powers to straighten 'the crooked timber of humanity', we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings' (p.97). 

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

It’s hard to know how to review this book without drifting into what might sound like hyperbole. I want to tell you that it was possibly the most powerful novel I’ve read. I want to tell you that I felt like I lived with the characters over the three weeks that it took me to read this book and I want to go and knock on their door and say hi as if we’re old friends.

Mistry tells the story of the intersection of four people’s lives during the mid-1970s in India. Dina, a middle-class widow who clings to her independence any way she can; Maneck a university student from an idyllic hill station who has come to board at Dina’s house; Ishvar, a tailor, employed by Dina, from the untouchable class, come to the city to escape village violence and hardship, and his nephew, 18 yr old Om, also a tailor. The four form an unlikely family unit in Dina’s little house during Indira Ghandi’s “State of Emergency”.

We learn of the history of all four characters—how they got to where they are now in ‘the city’. The tailors’ stories are particularly harrowing. Mistry takes us on a tour of caste violence, where the lives of the untouchables are worth very little. Although Ishvar and Om escape to the city and take up jobs as tailors, their absolute poverty and precarious existence means they are never far away from gross exploitation and sudden violence. Yet they are both warm-hearted and unbelievably optimistic, especially Ishvar, whose warmth and gentleness has left a warm patch on my heart. I feel like I know him and he has touched me with his kindness. 

I didn’t know much about the State of Emergency before reading this book, but wow. “Beautification” and forced (and brutal and clinically dangerous) sterilisation… I can sort of understand where the government was coming from because I guess when the population gets out of hand to that extent, things become anarchic and uncontrollable. But the sheer lack of human rights afforded to anyone during this regime was staggering. Maneck’s experience with his politically active university friend Ashvar; Dina’s landlord’s thuggery; the tailors’ colourful and pretty scary experiences as urban poor all occurred because of the complete curtailment of civil liberties during that time. 

Despite the horrors and general bleakness I’ve partially described, the four characters probably would not have come together under other circumstances. The brief time they lived together in Dina’s home was a time of unexpected joy and happiness for all of them. For Maneck and Dina especially, it was the most wonderful time of their lives. I wanted it to continue forever. For the tailors, they probably knew, like everything else in their lives, that happiness and security could not be permanent. Of the four, they were by far and away the most adept at the ‘fine balance’ of hope and despair required to get on with life. 

This book made me cry and laugh. There are times when it felt like I was punched in the stomach. There were times when I had to put it down to just chill out for a second. Mistry has written a story with horrors and despair that could easily have been sentimental or sensationalist. Instead it was poignant, funny and beautiful. This is a sad story, but it’s also a really happy one.