Sunday, August 26, 2007

Growing Pains

Partly because it's late at night and partly because there's a lot else to do, I'm leaving this review unedited. It appeared in Tehelka's issue of 1 September 2007.

GIFTED Nikita Lalwani

Ah, adolescence. A time when the need to fit in is matched only by the urge to break away. When one looks at the standards of the previous generation and finds them sadly lacking. Novels featuring this stage mirror such angst, naturally, with a classic example being J.D. Salinger’s iconic The Catcher in the Rye, in which an embattled Holden Caulfield rages against the ‘phoniness’ of adult life, among other things. Others follow similar templates, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone.

A clear parallel can be drawn with immigrant fiction, most of which deals with the bewildered offspring of first-generation immigrants in a strange land, navigating the Scylla of the modern world and the Charybdis of the one left behind. It’s an in-between world, to borrow from the title of one of M.G. Vassanji’s novels.

The narrative engine of both types of books, then, is fuelled by the behaviour of the protagonists in conforming or cutting loose, with most reaching an uneasy compromise. It may not be the best of both worlds, but it’s the best they can do.

In Gifted, her debut novel, Nikita Lalwani deftly conflates these two genres to create a charming coming-of-age saga. This is the story of the precocious Rumi Vasi from ten to fifteen, detailing her parents’ ambitions for her and her struggle to find a life she is comfortable with.

A large part of the novel progresses though overlapping episodes – structurally akin to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – that take us into the cloistered 1980s world of the Vasis, immigrants from India who have settled in Wales. By choosing to tell the story in third person – instead of a first-person Rumi narrative, which must have been tempting – Lalwani attains a degree of objectivity and distance from her material, allowing her for the most part to manipulate points of view for a more nuanced portrait.

Mahesh, Rumi’s father, is a principled, pedantic and parsimonious lecturer who lives with his family in Cardiff. As Rumi displays a marked penchant for mathematics from an early age, Mahesh decides to strictly supervise her regime in the hope that she will get into Oxford as a young prodigy, another Shakuntala Devi. Her mother Shreene – lively yet lonely, and given to melodramatic gestures -- goes along with Mahesh’s iron schedule and is additionally concerned with whether her children will grow up without being “corrupted” by the West.

We chart Rumi’s growing years through a series of vignettes, some amusing and some moving, notably a trip to watch Attenborough’s Gandhi, two visits to India, Rumi’s crushes at school and her obsession with devouring cumin seeds. Much of this is very well done, including glimpses into Rumi’s mathematical bent applied to day-to-day life. Here she is, for example, evaluating the probability of walking home with the most fancied boy in her class: “Well, it was probably a 2 in 7 chance. Or maybe 3 in 14, otherwise known as 3 over 14. If you though about it, 1 over 14 would be point 0714 so 3 times that came to point 2142. She frowned. Hadn’t realized it was that small, she thought”.

Partly because of her abilities and partly because of Mahesh’s rigid routine, Rumi does indeed make it to Oxford. Here, she finally gets some breathing space and begins a brief liaison with Fareed, a 20-year-old student whom she meets at the Asian Society’s ‘Jazz and Samosa Evening’. The reverberations of this encounter make Rumi’s disenchantment burst into full flower (with a supporting role played by the lyrics of Bob Dylan).

This rebellion leads to dramatic consequences and, without giving too much away, it ought to be said that the finale is a tad inelegant. The best endings are those that are inevitable yet unexpected; and Gifted’s closing is more unexpected than anything else. To prefigure this, the author also tars Mahesh and Shreene with too black a brush, which is a little less than objective.

This quibble apart, Gifted is a pleasure to read. The prose is as crisp and clear-eyed as it is tender and evocative, and the beleaguered adolescent’s predicament is portrayed with compassion and insight. It marks the arrival of a talent that’s definitely, er, gifted.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Not So Sunny

Will be posting a review of Roma Tearne's Mosquito shortly; meanwhile, thought I'd resurrect an earlier review of a book by another Sri Lankan author. The unedited version appeared in a TimeOut Mumbai issue of April last year.

THE MATCH Romesh Gunesekera

Meet the ironically-named Sunny Fernando, protagonist of Romesh Gunesekera’s new novel, yet another alienated, disaffected hero trying to find his place in the world

Gunesekera shows us Sunny’s plight at different ages, in different situations: first, as a Sri Lankan teenager in Manila developing a hopeless crush; then studying in England, drifting from one discipline and attraction to another; later, in Sri Lanka again to discover his roots; and also as a career photographer and a married man, with wife and child in tow.

All along, Sunny doesn’t quite fit in, at odds with the world and what’s expected of him: “It could have been a play, Sunny thought, in which he had forgotten all his lines.” Finally, his dilemma is sought to be resolved in the closing section, when he witnesses an India-Sri Lanka cricket match at the Oval -- a structural echo of an earlier match in Manila -- in the process arriving at a truce between his needs and responsibilities. The “match”, then, refers not just to cricket, but also to the fit between Sunny’s abilities and the world’s demands.

For the most part, Gunesekera’s prose is cool and elegant, and he pays careful attention to even minor characters. The problem, however, is that the book has an oddly unmoored quality to it, as though Sunny’s rootlessness had infected the whole. Protagonists are expected to demonstrate energy, whether turned outward or in, and Sunny’s listlessness simply fails to grip.

Worth your while? A character from one of the tales in James Joyce’s Dubliners was memorably described as living “at a distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glasses.” Unfortunately, that’s something you could also say about The Match as a whole.

Friday, August 17, 2007

To Be Posted Soon, Or Whenever The Reviews Are Published, Whichever Comes First

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted (deft, charming evocation of a precocious adolescent's coming of age in Cardiff and Oxford, with echoes of David Mitchell's Black Swan Green); Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (crime noir meets the alternative history saga of a Jewish homeland in Alaska, which is pulled off with brio); and Roma Tearne's Mosquito (written with a painterly eye for the backwaters of Sri Lanka, but with inconsistent plot and characterisation, alas).

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Doubting Thomases

A longer post this time, a joint review of two books, which appeared in the August 10 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

GOD IS NOT GREAT Christopher Hitchens
THE GOD DELUSION Richard Dawkins

In the beginning was the Word. And many faiths lay claim to it, referring to a Divine Being and the scriptures revealed by Him to the devout. And lo, after centuries of prayers and bloodshed, there appeared many works that claimed God never existed in the first place and religion was not divine but man-made and foolish.

Of these, Sam Harris’ 2004 The End of Faith attained notoriety for its uncompromising stance and savaging of Islamic moderates. Philosopher Daniel Dennett joined the fray with Breaking the Spell and now, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and incendiary journalist Christopher Hitchens throw their hats into the atheist ring with The God Delusion and God is Not Great, respectively.

It’s not that doubt hasn’t come to the fore earlier: Nietzsche famously announced the Almighty’s demise in the 19th century, Bertrand Russell told us why he was not a Christian in 1927 and one of Time magazine’s most controversial cover stories, questioning if God was dead, appeared in 1966. More recently, Woody Allen claimed that not only was Nietzsche correct, it was also hard to get a plumber on weekends.

The recent spate of books on the subject can, however, be put down to the calamitous events of 9/11 and the continuing aftershocks, making people reflect more cogently on faith, fundamentalism and fanaticism. Given the zeitgeist, a healthy dose of cold water is certainly called for.

Hitchens is, as always, entertaining and provocative. He minces no words: the sentence “religion poisons everything” tolls throughout his book like a warning bell. God is Not Great is informed by his own experiences as a reporter, specifically addressing at one point the violence that religion has wrought in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Bethlehem, Baghdad and Belgrade.

With finely-calibrated indignation that’s often mordantly funny and sometimes slips into rage, he details organised religion’s abnormal attitudes to diet, medicine, women and childbirth. He takes on other sitting ducks, specifically the “intelligent design” argument as well as the composition of the Old and New Testaments as well as the Koran. (Dawkins, too, trains his sights on such low-hanging fruit: “The only difference between The DaVinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The DaVinci Code is modern fiction.”)

Those inspired by religion fare no better at Hitchens’ hands: he revisits his anti-beatification arguments against Mother Teresa and is rude about Mahatma Gandhi as well as the Dalai Lama, mocking the latter’s habit of hobnobbing with movie stars. (Though he makes no mention of the Dalai Lama’s willingness to engage in debate with scientists and rationalists.)

This is also a deeply personal book: he chooses, for example, to answer the question of whether religion makes you a better human being by citing instances from the life of one of his favourite authors (Waugh), by recounting a debate he witnessed between A.J. Ayer and a man of the cloth, and by recalling the atrocities in Uganda, which he visited in 2005.

Overall, though, Hitchens focuses more on the effects and practice of religion than its roots or necessity. “What hath Man wrought?” he seems to ask, without going into the journalist’s “Why?”

Dawkins is no less aggressive or exasperated. His stated aim is to champion the cause of atheism because it indicates a “healthy mind”. (He even proposes that atheists ought to be known as “the brights” – a proposal Hitchens finds annoying.)

While Hitchens pooh-poohs Buddhism by pointing out the role of the clergy in fomenting violence in Sri Lanka and quoting esoteric Zen passages, Dawkins refuses to engage with it, stating that Buddhism, along with Confucianism, is more of an ethical system and philosophy than a religion.

His efforts are, however, more systematic than Hitchens, rebutting arguments for the existence of God, starting from Aquinas’ five proofs, and rubbishing others, be they ontological, scriptural or personal.

Dawkins’ God is the principle of Darwinism, which he refers to time and again, specifically to invalidate the “intelligent design” argument: “…organised complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Why, then, has religious belief persisted though the ages? Dawkins suggests that religion is no more than a ‘meme’, the cultural equivalent of a gene, replicating itself by transfer from mind to mind. As for feelings of morality and altruism that religion is supposed to provoke, it’s Darwin to the rescue again: these are, says Dawkins, no more than the advantages of kinship and reciprocation in propagating the species.

Both Dawkins and Hitchens are particularly harsh on the ill-effects of organised religion when it comes to children. Such indoctrination and brainwashing, according to them, are alarmingly pernicious, and there’s certainly much food for thought in that.

In closing, Hitchens calls for a new Enlightenment, a celebration of the arts and scientific enquiry where there is no need for God. For Dawkins, it’s the lighthouse of science, above all, that should guide us.

Given mankind’s compulsive need to hug a creed – be it the ancient faiths, Osho, Scientology or merely the Art of Living – will such an age ever arrive?

God knows.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

One Good Book

ONE GOOD TURN Kate Atkinson

I haven’t read too many detective/mystery novels of late, alas, because I’ve been chasing after what they call “literary fiction”, but Kate Atkinson’s new novel was a splendid way of combining the two. Which isn’t surprising, come to think of it, because she’s done the same with her earlier Case Histories.

One Good Turn begins with an incident of road rage in Edinburgh at the start of the Fringe Festival and then moves on from character to character, teasing out the concatenation of circumstances that links them together. Among others, there’s retired police investigator Jackson Brodie (from Case Histories), pondering over his relationship with his actress-companion; the retiring mystery novelist haunted by the spectre of his past; the wife of a real-estate racketeer seeking a new start; and the police officer agonising over the right way to bring up her teenage child. Oh, and there’s more than one body, of course.

Structurally inventive, with prose that’s droll and incisive, One Good Turn takes its time in revealing hidden connections: “boxes within boxes, dolls within dolls, worlds within worlds”. (Russian dolls are, in fact, significant in more ways than one.) Yes, there are more than a few convenient coincidences, and the constantly shifting points of view won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s all very skillfully done, with a nasty little twist in the tale.

Worth your while? Clever, well-written crime fiction. Bring on the rain.

Monday, August 6, 2007

More Hyper Than Hip


Last year’s much-acclaimed debut novel – which I finally got around to reading – turns out to be over-inflated, in more ways than one. Author Marisha Pessl displays remarkable verve and inventiveness in both prose style and structure, but ultimately this is a book that’s too taken in by its own cleverness to leave a lasting impact.

Structured as a curriculum that reads like a sampling of Western literature’s greatest hits -- with hand-drawn visual aids to boot -- and stuffed with pop-cultural and textual allusions, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the tale of the precocious and gullible 16-year-old Blue Van Meer, who arrives with her peripatetic father, a professor, at a North Carolina school. Here, she encounters the charismatic and enigmatic Heather Schneider, a teacher who takes under her wing a group of trendy students who call themselves the Bluebloods. Heather dies in mysterious circumstances, and the book is an extended reminiscence of Blue’s period in the school and the discoveries she makes about those close to her.

There’s more than just a nod to Nabokov and to his Lolita here – road trips though small-town America, erudite references, teenage antics, butterflies – but the look-at-me style and length militate against the undoubted ingenuity with which the material is presented. Donna Tartt meets David Foster Wallace? Hardly.

Worth your while? Not all 500+ pages of it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Slick Gothic

THE KEEP Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me was inventive and well-written; with her next, The Keep, she ratchets up her craft to deliver a tale of secrets and lies. Much of the relish in reading this novel comes from the way she subverts and plays with genre: Gothic fantasy for the most part, but also prison memoir.

The novel primarily deals with the relationship between cousins Danny and Howard: Danny’s been one of those responsible for playing a cruel practical joke on Howard when they were young and now, years later, he journeys to a remote European castle to help a reinvented Howard fructify his plans to set up a luxury hotel there.

The castle is satisfyingly spooky: Danny deals with an ancient baroness, a murky pool and hidden corridors and tunnels. Just as you begin to wonder how much of his predicament is dream and how much reality, Egan turns the screws on you: Danny’s tale is actually being told by Ray, a convict in a prison writing class, and we now intercut between the Gothic narrative and Ray’s life in prison.

It’s all very cleverly done, and Egan keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next. One concern, however, is that Danny’s story is much more absorbing than Ray’s, making the denouement a tad less than satisfying. Yet, for the most part, The Keep explores questions of identity, connection and reinvention with refreshing brio.

Worth your while? Yes, if you’re a Gothic novel fan, and yes, if you think that literary fiction can’t provide a gripping tale.