A Fine Balance is the third novel I have read this year that is set in India. 3 random works of fiction that have had provided different degrees of enjoyment. The first was very good and one of my best reads this year, the second was average at best and now the third and final one has been an outstandingly brilliant read, so good that I wonder if I will read anything better this year. In all, India has been a good setting for my 2021 fictional reads. To believe that I have had A Fine Balance sitting on the shelf for almost 3 years!
A Fine Balance is a breathtakingly heartbreaking story written by Rohinton Mistry. Its heartbreaking nature is equally matched by the beautiful prose and masterful storytelling. I generally flinch at bools that go beyond 350 to 400 pages ( A Fine Balance is a little over 600 pages) as my attention was never that great in my younger days and has gotten worse in recent years. A book that comes in at over 600 pages is a breeze when Rohinton Mistry is the storyteller. A Fine Balance is set in India of the 70s. Most of the story unfolds in 1975 when the famous Emergency rule is in full swing and Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. This was a period of lawlessness and great uncertainty. The dictatorial tendencies of the Emergency rule were used to suppress rights on religious, social and financial divides. A Fine Balance is not a political novel, even with the devastating effects of the dictatorial government policies taking centre stage in the plot, the overarching themes are larger than politics. It is the moving story of four lives that intersect by chance and how their lives are bound together not just by chance but also how macro-political decisions impact individuals in profound long-lasting ways and later their lives forever. With all the suffering in A Fine Balance, one is tempted to see it as a study in theodicy when looked from a philosophical lens but that would be a one-dimensional view of a masterfully told story of human living that employs a panoramic view of ordinary lives that is so relatable that their short-lived happiness gladdens the reader immeasurably and their despair seem so prolonged that you seem to want to hurry up the pages in a bid to quicken their suffering. Such is the bleakness of the circumstances of the characters yet it is so well written that the reader is drawn in and kept glued.
The balance in A Fine Balance is not just between hope and despair but across religion, social class, financial status and gender. The search for balance plays out randomly and indiscriminately to Dina, a Parsi widow, Ishvar and Omprakash, two migrant tailors from the rural areas, along with Manesh a student who has been sent by his parents to study in the city. In coming together to form an unusual family bond in Dina’s tiny flat, each of the four is trying to change their circumstance in the face of the repressive Emergency rule – Dina is seeking independence from her patriarchal elder brother, Manesh is distraught at the changes in his family dynamics and refuses to let go of his childhood, while Ishvar and Omprakash are refusing to accept their lot as ”untouchables” as members of the tanners’ caste. As each of them seeks to change their lot, compromises are made, despair and joy intermingle with the latter in short supply and the former in excess supply. The randomness of hope’s extinguishment is heartbreaking. Therein lies the balance or imbalance at the heart of the story.
A Fine Balance is an exceptionally well-written book that explores ordinary human lives beautifully even when conveying the trauma of being at the receiving end of oppression. The structure is also worthy of commendation – it starts from the point where the lives of all four main characters converge then backs off to their past before returning to their present and proceeding into the future. The present is both collective and individual and the narrative, which is in the second person alternates flawlessly. I still have a few more novels left in my 2021 TBR list but I am almost certain that in A Fine Balance, I have read my best book of 2021. Now I need to find a way to manipulate the settled process of selection in order to get the other Mistry’s novel on the shelf into next year’s pile.
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage is an exploration of a marital relationship between a Moroccan couple. It is set during the early 2000s and in France and Morocco. While the title of the book is highly ironic and sarcastic, the book deals with critical issues that are often at the root of most dysfunctional marriages – class issues, infidelity, lack of trust in financial matters, patriarchal double standards and lack of love. All of these and more are present in the marriage between the famed painter and his wife. Beyond the dysfunctionality of the marriage between the protagonists, The Happy Marriage is a study in narration and perspectives.
The painter met his wife in 2000 and they got married in Paris soon after. Being Moroccans seem to be the only shared identity between them. The painter is a famous artist and comes from a rich stock in Fez, Morocco while the wife was born of peasants in rural Morocco and fostered by a French couple who returned back to France from Morocco with her. It might seem inconsequential to some but it is a major factor that shapes the marital relationship between the groom and bride’s extended families. The wife feels unwelcome and the husband struggles to empathise with her over her insecurity in the face of his siblings’ attitude to his wife and her family. As seen from his wife’s view, the disrespect and insecurity that the extended family generated were as hurtful as the painter’s infidelity. The underlying themes in The Happy Marriage are universal and are issues that will wreck any marriage. The unwillingness of either party to be a little more introspective and consider their faults is a true red flag for any marriage. The painter thinks his infidelity is justified. He thinks he has been a good husband and is the victim in his own story. His wife thinks otherwise and manages to sway the reader to her side that her husband is a pretentious westerner who harbours archaic Moroccan view on marriage where different rules apply to both parties. She also thinks her aggression and occasional violence had been justified. As unlikeable as both characters are, their plights are real and very relatable.
As relatable as the content is, The Happy Marriage is a very dry read. At a point, I wondered if the dryness was the fault of the translator or the very plodding prose. The Happy Marriage is divided into two unequal parts. In the first part, which is about three-quarters of the book, the protagonist is the painter. We begin in 2000 and with the couple living in Casablanca and the painter having suffered a massive stroke and is on the road to recovery. This first part is written in a third-person narrative and I found this choice of narration strange and stifling. It made this part of the book read like a news report. In it, the protagonist details his marital life and career while justifying his philandering moves and absolves himself of the failure of his marriage – it is all his wife’s fault. In the second part of the book, his wife takes centre stage and replies to him. She is firm, direct and at the same time haphazard in her defence. She starts by highlighting a major point in her husband’s diatribe – he never mentions her by name. She is Amina and in retaliation, she calls him ”Foulane”, an Arabic word meaning ”any old guy”. While her husband’s story is detailed and extensive, hers is direct and passionate, offering an intimacy that sways the reader’s allegiance. In all, The Happy Marriage is a dry read with universal themes that call for introspection from any reader who is willing to look beyond the fault of others and examine theirs. It takes a huge effort to push through as the prose is generally uninspiring.
A Lucky Man is James Brinkley’s debut collection of short stories. It is a collection of 9 expansive stories that complexly explore masculinity. In it, each of the male protagonists is trying to make sense of his relationships – with their parents, siblings, classmates and even strangers. The protagonists don’t always do right but the complex processes that fuel their failure, redemption and even maintenance of the status quo are fully explored. All the protagonists are black men and the stories are all set in the Brooklyn and the Bronx areas. However, the characters are as diverse as their circumstances.
I found this book through Storygraph, where it popped up on my feed as a recommendation last year. While I found Jamel Brinkley’s writing to be very crisp and sharp, his sentences were carefully constructed. However, I found the neatness of his prose to be in conflict with the vagueness of most of the stories. I struggled to go past the first three stories but once I persevered beyond there, it got better but still not as satisfying as I hoped. A major problem I have with short stories is the abruptness of most endings. The collection in A Lucky Man has an added problem in my view – the complexity of the characters obscure the import of the story and render most of them vague and yield seemingly random abrupt turns. While there is enough space for readers to think and deduce things in the stories, the vagueness seemed overbearing to me.
It is not all gloom as I was rewarded for my perseverance by some excellent stories (I thoroughly enjoyed A Family, Infinite Happiness and Wolf and Rhonda) before the collection is rounded up with Clifton’s Place, one that highlighted all that is wrong with this collection. In A Family, I enjoyed the intricate but complex and unusual web of relationships between Curtis, Andre and Lena. Wolf’s inadequacies and toxicity were well detailed in Wolf and Rhonda. An added low point is the characterization of female characters. I found them almost always defined by their bodies. It may be tricky as A Lucky Man sets out to depict real pictures of masculinity but I am not sure such a toxic characterization of females is completely true. In all, I will be eager to read Jamel Brinkley’s next work as long as it is not a short story collection and hopefully it is a novel. His writing is inviting enough but this collection did not do much for me.
Sepha Stephanos is the narrator and protagonist in Children of the Revolution, Dinaw Mengestu’s immigration tale. It is a quiet exploration of an Ethiopian migrant who finds himself in between two worlds – Ethiopia, the home he left seventeen years ago and the world he now inhabits, Washington D.C. He is caught in no-man’s-land as the pain of the past is evenly matched by the despondency of the present wrapped by the dashed hopes that filled his early days in America.
It is not only the two worlds that are in conflict in Sepha’s universe. The neighbourhood where Sepha lives in Washington D.C. is also in conflict as he observes the gradual but certain gentrification of the area where he lives and owns an almost moribund grocery shop that mirrors his almost hopeless existence in the America of his dream. He is not the only one whose dreams are dashed. His friends, Joe the Congolese and Kenneth the Kenyan are also disillusioned with the American dream as Sepha is but unlike Sepha, they find ways of motivating themselves to keep up hope. Whether it is by dressing the part or talking the part, Joe and Kenneth find ways to keep the flame of being part of the American dream alive. Sepha is just drifting through.
In Judith his neighbour and her daughter Naomi, Sepha finds a relationship to distract him from the mundanity of his daily living but even in that, his battered self-confidence gets in the way and he is unable to nurture a relationship as an equal. Children of the Revolution is a decent debut. The writing is crisp and sparse but that is about all (which is quite a lot though) it has going for it. The plot is thin, flat and light, all in one. Also, the storyline is chopping and disjointed making the character development hugely uneven.
This book is a mess! Strangely, that is a very huge compliment. The Bridge is a messy exploration of tragedies and the aftermath of guilt, healing, forgiveness, redemption and justice. However, it is not as linear as the previous line sounds. It is way messier. The book is a mess because the tragedies are well captured, the characters are well developed and the writing is unrelentingly bleak. The Bridge leaves you in a mess of emotions long after the last page is turned.
On October 15, 1970, Australia witnessed its worst industrial accident; a span in the uncomplicated Melbourne West Gate bridge collapsed. 35 construction workers were killed in the collapse and 18 of them were physically injured. Obviously, many more were scarred with trauma for lengthy periods. Based on this true event, Enza Gandolfo has written a story of two interrelated tragedies with many messed up characters. The first tragedy is the trauma of Antonello, a 22-year-old Italian migrant who is a rigger and worker in the bridge. Antonello swapped his shift with a colleague and it is the reason why he is not on the bridge when the large span collapses. However, he is close enough to witness the accident as it happens and sees his colleagues perish in an avoidable accident. The second tragedy occurs 39 years later. Jo and Ashleigh are teenage friends and in the final months of high school. They are preoccupied with the usual things that teenagers occupy themselves with and with plenty of dreams for the future. The closeness of their bond is matched by the disparity of their personalities that is further exasperated by class differences. In an unfortunate incident of drink driving, an avoidable accident occurs. The link between both tragedies is this – one of the teen girls is the granddaughter of Antonello.
The characters in The Bridge are well developed and the writing is plain, sincere and emphatic. Each of the characters carries around the baggage of emotions, truly damaged humans trying to make the best of the hand that fate has dealt them. From Antonello whose unhealed trauma of survivor guilt comes full cycle after almost 40 years of building walls around himself and keeping everyone out of his pain and misery, to Paolina his wife who sees the zest and vitality of her promising marriage sucked out by the trauma of the bridge collapse and her cancer diagnosis in later years, to their children Nicki and Alex who struggle to connect with a father who is present but absent at the same time, to Mandy, Jo’s mother who while wrecked with the guilt of inadequacy in her parenting skills that are laid bare by her daughter’s continuous comparison of her working-class stature and the more upwardly mobile middle-class status of her friends’ parents. That is not all. We still have Jo whose guilt and trauma is palpable and despite how strongly one feels drunk driving, it is hard not to feel her pain and loss. In all of this mess, my favourite character is Sarah. She is Jo’s lawyer and it is a character that allowed the author to excellently explore self-esteem and body image centred around obesity. Her challenges with how society perceives her due to her body shape is a timely reminder that such issues are deeply affecting its sufferers. More importantly, Sarah is a damn good lawyer who enters the world of her clients without blurring the lines between client and personal relationships. Her determination to make a difference in her world is infectious and instructive.
The only small quibble I have with The Bridge is that at some point the guilt narrative of Jo and Antonello becomes excessive and you feel some lines were being repeated with no additional significance. This excess could easily have made the book 10 to 15 pages lighter. This quibble is minor and does not distract from the profoundness of the novel. The Bridge is a well-written book and its messy characters linger for long and its themes are thought-provoking too. Highly recommended.
There are three possible viewpoints a crime fiction can be written in; the crime fighter as a protagonist, the criminal as a protagonist and less often, the crime victim as a protagonist. Blacktop Wasteland takes the second viewpoint with Beauregard ”Bug” Montage as the skilled criminal. Bug is a criminal at heart although he tries to convince himself that that life is in the past. To be fair to him, he makes a genuine effort to draw a line with his past. That his past catches up with him is not the crux of the matter in Blacktop Wasteland. The meat of this thriller is about the life issues that have hedged Bug between in a rocky spot. The melancholy and the constant ache for a better life that has hedged him between a rock and a hard place, are the real deal that makes this book exceptional.
Bug is a loving father, caring son and faithful husband, His car repair shop is going under, his aged mother is about to be kicked out of the care home where she is, his son needs braces, his second son needs new glasses and his daughter is about to skip college due to a lack of funds. None of these family issues is unique to Bug in the real world. What is unique is that he is fighting a demon from his past – one that threatens to define him and his lineage. Maybe if he was not a skilled gateway driver he would be able to banish his demons but because he is an exquisite heist planner and the best getaway driver around, Ronnie comes calling for one last job. A job big enough to tempt Bug but Ronnie and his crew are untidy enough to make the risk almost too much for even Bug and his famed skills.
Like most crime fiction novels, Blacktop Wasteland has lots of violence, guns and action (it also has a lot of car chases). However, what makes it special are the life matters that resonate with the reader long after the last page is turned – family, loyalty, fatherhood and how the colour of one’s skin still mattered in present-day America. Some turns of phrases in the book are a bit too cooked but not enough to stop this from being a very enjoyable read.
The start of Deacon King Kong is as explosive and straightforward as it can get – 71-year-old Sportcoat in a perpetual state of drunkenness walks to the local plaza of the Causeway housing project, pulls out a gun from his pocket and shoots the 19-year old drug dealer called Deems at point-blank range. There are about 16 eyewitnesses and they are all sure that Sportcoat’s days are numbered, not just because Deem will seek and get revenge but his drug bosses will need to make a statement as a way of assuring their foot soldiers that they will be protected. It is a relatively straightforward plot that after the first two pages you wonder what the author has planned for the rest of the almost 370 pages. That worry is valid when your expectation is that you are about to immerse yourself into a crime fiction novel of some sort. Deacon King Kong is not any of that and your expectations are soon dashed but dashed for something even better. It is a colourful exploration of the multifaceted humanity of the diverse people that make up the poor community called the Causeway housing project.
There are several things that get you worried by the end of the first two chapters; a relatively basic plot, dozens of characters introduced so soon that you wonder how you could remember them as you suspect it would be a struggle to develop the characters enough to create an impression and the fact that a good portion of the narration is done in New York street slang that is often a drag when overdone. At the end of the book, each of those concerns are torn apart and rendered inconsequential simply because you underrated how good a writer and an excellent storyteller that the author James McBride is. The stories of the interrelated lives of the people of Causeway are as colourful as the prose that James McBride employs to tell them. The prose flows and the storytelling sizzles. At the centre of the plot and the lives of the inhabitants of Causeway are Cuffy Jasper “Sportcoat” Lambkin and the Five Ends Church. Everything revolves around these two and as the master storyteller that he is, James McBride spins the world of Causeway around these two with such shimmering prose that neither big nor small narrative elements are neglected. He does this with the right dose of human intelligence, candour, wit and humour. The crooks are not vilified, neither are they glorified. The complexity of humans is in full view.
The coincidences that marred Bruce Moon’s triple attempt to exert revenge on Sportcoat for shooting Bruce’s foot soldier are as laughable as but excellently told as Sportcoat’s irritability and unwillingness to remember the shooting or his unwillingness to recognize his vulnerability to danger afterwards. Without being overwhelmed with the resolution of the crime as would be expected of any book that starts as Deacon King Kong starts, the story is more about the community that lives in the Causeway housing project. Whether it is about the friendship between Sportcoat and his fellow drunk Sausage, the mutual attraction between Potts the police officer and Sister Gee, the budding romantic feelings between Thomas Elefante and the Guvnor’s daughter or even the dashed hopes that Sportcoat had for Deems as he sees him neglect his baseball skills for a stint on the sidewalks as a drug dealer. In all of these, the struggles are universal and the beauty and ugliness of humanity shine through in almost equal measure. The shooting and the Five End church remain backdrops that enable the community of the Causeway housing project to shine through. Highly recommended.
Rehana Rossow’s sophomore work of fiction; New Times might not be as exciting as her debut but it is a powerful enough work to warrant some reflection after the last page. New Times gets its name not just from the newspaper that the protagonist Aaliyah (Ali) works in but also as a reference to the times when the novel is set in. Set in 1995, just before and during the Rugby World Cup. and at the onset of the Mandela presidency. These are the new times when the old order of apartheid was being ushered out and new times were taking root. The underlying current is a puzzling look at how and if the new times were indeed beneficial.
Ali is a symbol of the new times not just in her struggles in the New Times newsroom as a new staff but a symbol in her bid to navigate the present while weighed down by the burden and trauma of the past. While at her previous news organisation, she had seen a lot of traumatic events while covering protests as a political reporter. This is not uncommon with South African journalists before 1994. Most of these traumas have gone undiscussed and probably unattended to. In the new times with the change that was promised not panning out as expected, Ali begins to unravel as she wonders if those deaths were futile and in vain. Like Ali rightly said, “sometimes it’s hard to understand the choices people make when they’re finally free“. 27 years into the new times of the rainbow nation, some of the choices of the free have been frankly head-scratching.
it is incredibly hard to pull off a novel that has political activism at its core as it often comes off as preachy and veers close to didacticism. New Times suffers from that defect but the difficulty is eased by Rossouw’s excellent prose and Ali’s life outside work that is so vividly described. The life of a young Muslim in the Cape-Malay’s Bo-Kaap community is vividly painted in words. Ali’s struggles with mental health, the sexual tension between herself and her best friend, Sumaya, the metamorphosis of Lizo her politician friend and the tenacious effort of her grandma Ragmat to keep the homefront steady in the face of multiple challenges, are all vividly told. They are vivid enough to keep the political themes in check and prevent them from elbowing the humanity of Aaliyah and the community that surrounds her out of the spotlight of this well-written work of fiction.
I had mentioned in an earlier note that I have three works of fiction set in India in my 2021 TBR list. The Year of The Runaways is the second of the three. Sweeping between India and England (mostly Sheffield) and between the early teenage years of its protagonists and present-day, The Years of The Runaways follows the lives of three young men who have been pushed by poverty and other excruciating family factors into a desperate search for a new and better life. Tarlochan (Tochi) is a former rickshaw driver who refuses to say anything about his traumatic family life in Bihar before he migrated illegally to the UK. Avtar has taken great risk to the point of organ harvesting to make the journey to a land where he thinks his fortune will be turned around. Randeep whose chaotic nature means that Avtar has to keep protecting him. Avtar has a student visa for which he is not interested in schooling. Randeep has a visa wife (Narinder). Their reasons for migrating differ but the desperation of their actions and the grimness of their lot while in England is uniform and almost indistinguishable.
From afar each bears the burdens of their families and each is the candle that keeps the hopes of their families from being extinguished. It is a heavy load to bear and made even heavier by the illegality of their stay in the UK and the unavailability of decent enough jobs to service the enormous loans that facilitated their migration. All of these make The Year of The Runaways a very painful and grim read but one that is grounded in the reality of what life is for the average migrant who is seemingly helpless enough to dream of migration as the only option in the face of shrinking options at home.
In the midst of the gloom and suffering that encompasses the three male protagonists is the welcome diversion of Narinder, Randeep’s via wife. Narinder’s character is a welcome diversion not just because she is not a migrant (she is British of Indian origin) but also because her characterisation lacks the three male protagonists. Apart from their background, nothing separates Avtar and Randeep and their lives in England is basically interchangeable. There is no depth in their characterizations. Her battles and internal conflict between spiritual devotion and human empathy, between the chains of patriarchy and freedom and that between innocence and loss, are keenly observed and her character evolution is apparent.
Altering between four protagonists was always going to be tricky but what makes it worse in the case of The Year of The Runaways is the lack of depth and similarity in the characterization of the male characters. This made it difficult to track which character was in focus most of the time. The Year of The Runaways is sustained by the realism of the plot. However, it is let done by the workmanlike nature of the prose. It reminds me of a recent discussion I read online where someone said some fiction writers are storytellers while some have a gift for writing and that very few have both. After reading this book, I am inclined to believe that Sunjeev Sahota is more of a storyteller. This is not one of those books where you are captured by a sentence, quote or paragraph. It is one where you recognize the reality of the plot and empathize with the characters without finding any of them memorable.