I’m afraid that this is one of my first forays into the English literature of India. Terrible, I know, but the one or two others that I have read were not that great. And yes, I am well aware that basing an entire country’s literary output on one or two books is ridiculous and stupid, but there’s so much other stuff out there, I haven’t had a chance to rectify this. So, I figure, starting off with a modern classic – and yes, I think that this book deserves this title totally, simply because so many people know and love it – would perhaps help me ease into this massive output of work.
Rahel has been living in America for the last twenty years, when she comes back to Kerala – at state of India – to meet her estranged twin brother, whom she has not seen since they were 7. Returning to Ayemenem, her home town, however, brings back memories of one fateful day back in the 1960s, when her cousin from England had come to visit, when the Communist Revolution was simmering just below the surface of the community, and when her family was all still together.
If nothing else, this book is brilliantly written. Roy is a sublime writer, who uses the English language in ways that make me jealous. Her combination of English and her native language creates a unique sense of style that you could read all day.
Unfortunately, however, the novel sometimes becomes bogged down in this very style. In what is a very complex story – the jumps between the present and the past are often very subtle – the stylistic features can make the story itself hard to follow. A shame, because the story itself is also pretty good. Everyone loves a good family secret, and the one buried at the middle of this complex set of circumstances is pretty good. All the clues are there at the beginning, but it takes some time before the realisation of the whole thing begins to take place. Each member of the family is given sufficient time to explore their background, making the climax all that much more satisfying – an understanding of the actions of each character at the end make this novel well worth it. Though, to be fair, understanding these characters’ actions does not make the exceptionally depressing ending any easier to deal with. You are not going to feel good about humanity at the end of this novel – much like after reading an Ian McEwan novel, really.
This novel should be brilliant. And most of the parts are. But, I think that putting all of these parts together somehow takes away from the brilliance. Plot, characters and style are all excellently realised, but the novel somehow becomes less than the sum of its parts. It is not a particularly long book – at all – yet sometimes it feels as though it is really dragging, especially in the middle. Having said that, I do feel that this book very much warrants a re-read, perhaps to understand all the minute details and twists that pepper this very good (but not brilliant) novel.