Antara is a middle class Indian woman. Her husband, Dilip, is an American Indian (no, not one of those) who was sent by his company to Pune despite hardly speaking a word of Hindi and breaking his rotis with two hands. What had been a very happy, westernised relationship is now transformed by the arrival of Antara's senile mother and the imminent arrival of a baby. Antara is less than thrilled by her change in circumstances as she explains to readers in sassy, sarcastic tones.
Antara loathes her mother, but she is honour bound to support her. The mother - Tara to her daughter's Un-tara - seems to have made curious decisions in the past. Antara was sent to a strict school run by nuns. Tara separated from her wealthy husband and became a beggar outside the Club - that haven of the middle classes. Tara joined the Ashram and wore white, despite not being in mourning. Antara resents this, and resents the intrusion Tara is making on her now comfortable life as a conceptual artist.
The real strength of the novel is Antara's voice. She is self-entitled, whining, rude, ungrateful and hilarious. She may well have cause for complaint, but her petulance in putting that view across gives the reader a strange sense of schadenfreude. The legitimacy of her complaints is further undermined as the reader gradually discovers the appalling way she has behaved as an adult. There are vignette like chapters - almost like Slumdog Millionaire - with each one offering a different facet of life in India, spanning the social classes. There are real, compassionate characters in the novel. But always, there is Antara's voice.
Burnt Sugar is not a long novel and it is tempting to start all over again to extract every drop of brilliance from this novel that starts so sweetly and becomes so bitter.
Jai is nine years old. He lives in a slum in the shadow of high rise (hi fi) apartments in an unnamed Indian city. He goes to school; his family has food on the table; he is addicted to crime documentaries on TV. He is on the cusp of leaving childhood as he has an emergent adult awareness of the perils and opportunities around him.
So when an unloved classmate goes missing, Jai rounds up a posse of friends and embarks on detective work to try to trace him. Gradually more children disappear, but still the police aren't interested - what are poor lives worth anyway?
Jai is mostly used as a witness to report on life in the slums. He provides a lens through which to see the emergent middle class and the way they suck the oxygen away from those still living in poverty. He shows the slums as a world with its own commerce, its own rules - one that defines its identity from the purple metro line on which its residents cannot afford to travel. People in the slums still have ambitions and aspirations of one day joining these middle classes.
And needless to say, Jai is not a great detective. This is not The Red Hand Gang or Scooby Doo. Kids with no money and no influence do not unmask villains through finding clues. But their dogged determination can eventually stir the authorities from their torpor.
Purple Line is a very bleak novel and it is clear from the outset that for most of the families - for most of the disappeared kids - this is not going to have a happy ending. Rather, they each offer a different story, a different facet of life in the neighbourhood. Despite the context, and despite the poverty, most of the stories involved playing and laughter. But always with the spectre of child abduction lurking in the background.
As well as the characters, a key strength of the novel is the sense of place. Whether in the residential area, the bazaar or in the city station, the writing transports the reader to a real and immersive world. This is all the more impressive as the city is clearly an amalgam of different cities and locations throughout India.
This is not a quick or easy read. It is very rich and dense; there are details that are important but easy to miss - I found myself constantly having to flick back a few pages. Perhaps also the overall lack of plot development can make the middle section feel a bit slow - and inevitably some stories appeal more than others. When the ending comes - and eventually it does - the pace picks up and it becomes much harder to set the book down.
This is a worthwhile novel that, like some other recent works from Commonwealth countries, deals with poverty in a modern world that interfaces with mod-cons and mass-communication. It's not a misery novel. In her Afterword, Deepa Anappara explains that she did not want to portray the kids and their families as Victims (with a capital V), but instead to represent the vitality, humour, schemes and scams she found in her encounters with kids in impoverished circumstances. Together, of course, with the lack of basic security that India's poor face on a daily basis; the threat of physical harm on the one hand and the threat of bulldozers on the other.
Saroo Brierley was years old when, out on a nefarious expedition with his older brother, he crept into an empty train and fell asleep. By the time he was able to get out of the train he was in Kolkata with no idea of how to get home. He lived on the streets for a while, had some very narrow escapes, then was picked up, sen tto anorphanage and after fruitless attempts to find his family was adopted by a couple in Australia. 25 years later, with only hazy and inaccurate memories of his train journey, he set about trying to find out where he came from and his birth mother.
It's an incredible story, slightly marred by Saroo Brierley being at best a functional writer, it would have been so much better if he'd got a good ghost wroter to do the narrative for him. It has also been made into a film, called Lion, Saroo's nckname as a child, which a friend tells me is very good. It may be one of the few instances of a film being better than the book.
Those reservations apart this is definitely well worth reading or seeing.
review of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
keiko Karakura is a 36 year old woman, working 5 days a week in a Convenience Store, where she has been for the last 18 years. She lives for the convenience store including doing her own shopping in the store she works, her breakfast coming from the store, her lunch from the store and dinner from the store. This brings societal pressure from both family and friends to form a relationship and to start a family (she admits to having "no awareness of her own sexuality", she seems to be very sex adverse in the novel and probably asexual (asexuality is mentioned in my edition on page 37). She also seems to be on the autism spectrum. She struggles to relate to people outside of work and needs help from her sister to come up with preplanned answers to the difficult questions. The structure of the convenience store works for her as everything she needs to do, is covered in the manual. The repetitiveness and organisation of the store puts her in a settled mood). Her sister wishes Keiko would visit her and her son more but Keiko doesn't understand the difference between her nephew and a friends baby. In social situations in the store, she tries to mimic the other staff's style of speaking and dress in order to fit in.
As a cover for her unwillingness and difficulty at dealing with the questions on her relationship status, she decides to enlist a former colleague Shirhaha to play the role of a boyfriend/partner but he seems an awful person (misogynistic, lazy). I think the pressures that keiko faces are very relateable to problems other asexuals face, trying to appear and fit in with a society that doesn't really understand a lack of interest and lack of sexual attraction.
There are some indicators I find on how I feel about books. A disappointing book may have things like, you keep going to your mobile phone to check stuff on it, you take breaks and your mind wanders. Similarly, a book that you enjoyed have other indicators, like the only break you took when reading was to have some tea, you read it through in a single evening when you originally intended to only read for an hour but instead you just finished it, you decide to skip watching stuff on tv that you probably would normally watch (also helped was new england patriots thrashing la chargers 35-7 in the odd break to see the score at 8pm). the list of those reason you enjoyed a book all apply to this one.
In short, I loved this book. Apart from my tea break (and to check the American Football score), I wanted to just read it, I loved Keiko and the voice that Murata and Tapley Takemori gave Keiko. It was witty, endearing, observant. The reason I wanted to keep reading it was I wanted to know that she got on ok.
thanks to both Sayaka Murata and Ginn Tapley Takemori for this superb novel that I loved.
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Review of The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuku Horie, translated by Geraint Howells
This short story collection has three stories in it. In the first, the title story, a man visits his friend from Petanque in Western France and has a weird dream involving the footpath becoming bears. Further to this, both recollecting of the past and looking at the present where the narrator gets to know the friend's neighbour and her blind son. The friend is Jewish and there is remembrance to events of World War 2 in the novel. The second story is about the narrator joining a woman on a beach to remember the anniversary of her brother's death (his friend) and the third involves two friends breaking into an old castle, one where the groundskeeper would even refuse the President of the Republic if he didn't have proper authorisation
The Bear and Paving Stone * * * * *
Sandman is Coming * * * 1/2
The Old Castle * * * *
All three stories were very good and I really enjoyed this collection, rather than full plotted stories, this is more about interaction between people than intrinsic plots and complicated storylines. At times, funny, other times heartfelt, it is always a pleasure when a short story collection does not let me down in the reading of it.
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