Category Archives: contemporary fiction

Read 205 of 2021. The Man who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

The Man who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

Title: The Man who Lived Underground Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Library of America
ISBN: 978-1598536768
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was absolutely stunned as I turned the pages and devoured this previously unpublished work of Richard Wright. The Man who Lived Underground is about an innocent black man who gets trapped in double homicide and brutalised by the police force. He is wrongly accused, interrogated for the sake of it, and finally not even entitled to a lawyer to fight his case. This book is set in 1942. Sadly, nothing has changed.

Fred Daniels manages to escape from police custody and enters the sewers, and this is really where the story takes place. He has lost his home, his wife, and his new-born child – all because of his colour and the racism that exists. He is making his way through the sewer questioning life and death, his existence at large, and what will happen to him once he is found by the authorities.

The writing is quick in most parts, verbose in some, but never lets go of the reader. You can see Wright’s touch through and through, but more than that, I also saw a lot of Baldwin in the book. Perhaps Baldwin inspired Wright to write the way he did.

The experience of reading about a man in a sewer is nightmarish, almost allegorical, even magic realism taking on in the prose to some extent. Everything in the sewer takes on a different meaning – from a car sloshing through a puddle, or the scream of a baby, or a shout – it is all different for Fred much like when he exists on the world above.

Wright’s writing cuts to the bone. Empathy flows throughout. There is madness. There is chaos. And it all seems like one big fever dream, an old story told over and over again – when everyday life is taken over by hallucinations in order to make it bearable.

Read 204 of 2021. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Title: Klara and the Sun
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571364886
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

There is so much going on in Klara and the Sun that it was impossible for me as a reader to not put the book down and mull over what Ishiguro was trying to say, if one can get what authors try to tell you every single time. Ishiguro’s latest (and long-listed for the Booker Prize 2021) has been published after six long years, and all I have to say is that the wait is worth it.

To understand the concept of Klara, an Artificial Friend, and then to understand her thoughts and feelings and how she makes sense of the world is fascinating. Ishiguro’s writing in this one to me was way different from his other works. There is a sense of restlessness that I felt inside of me as I navigated through Klara and the Sun. Her world is very different and when she’s with her human friend, the perspective changes drastically. Memories merge with Klara’s observations that sometimes she comes across as an unreliable narrator, but that is also another aspect of the novel which is joyous to read.

The latent struggle of trying to make sense of what is going on and at the same time to be true to her human friend is real. The loneliness, the meaning of love, and could she ever love someone, and what makes her who she is are elements so complex and core to the novel.

Klara and the Sun was definitely worth the wait after The Buried Giant. I thought it would be similar to Never Let Me Go or on those lines, but Ishiguro not only surprises you, but sometimes urges you to look at the world differently, and in the process perhaps understand yourself, and maybe even your heart a little more.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn by Ali Smith

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Anchor Books 
ISBN: 9781101969946
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5

This was a reread for me this year. I had almost forgotten how brilliant this book is, and it is not just about the word-games or the wordplay that Smith uses to her advantage. It is also not about the latent humour that springs itself on you every five pages or so. It is about the writing. The hard-to-contain, the kind of writing that is not limited only to words, the kind of writing that makes you sit up and want to devour the book in one sitting. Autumn for me, is that kind of a book. The book that I will reread perhaps once more before this year ends. 

Autumn by Ali Smith is the first in a quartet. The season quartet as it is called. Autumn is the season of mists, of melancholy, of trees shedding leaves, of changing colours, of perhaps to see clearly, and make peace with the fact that life isn’t stationary. Autumn by Ali Smith is all of this and more. It is called “the Brexit novel”, but to me it is so much more. A lot more. Autumn is about friendship, love, art, identity, forgetfulness, ageing, of how much the world means to us, and how much we perhaps leave behind. 

It is essentially the story of Elisabeth, and her next-door neighbour Daniel Gluck, about 70 years her senior. The friendship that started when she was but a little girl, who is now a woman in her early 30s, and he is centenarian. She goes to meet him at the home for the aged. She reads to him. Constantly reading to him. There is a lot of back and forth between the present and the past in the book, which worked for me through and through. Elisabeth and Daniel’s relationship is charted through the years, of what he teaches her about art, beauty, and the nature of living. Of how she takes it all in. Of the unspoken beauty of friendship, that doesn’t come with any condition of age or time or wisdom. It just is. 

Autumn is energetic, brimming with wordplay, there is so much to it – the layers just keep peeling – perhaps also with every reread. It is also the story of Christine Keeler, of the Profumo fame, and how art plays a role in all of it. It is the story of how we function as humans. Ali Smith’s writing is perfect as far as I am concerned. No phrase or sentence is out of place, or not needed. Everything makes sense and sometimes nothing does. But that’s the beauty of her writing. You read. You pause. You savour what she serves, and you right back for a reread. I for one, cannot wait to now read Winter.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger by Aravind AdigaTitle: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Publisher: Free Press, Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1416562603
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Indian Writing in English
Pages: 304
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 2.5/5

Every time I tried reading, “The White Tiger” I was unsuccessful. I couldn’t move beyond the tenth page. There was something about it, or something about me that didn’t enable the turning of the page after a certain point. I tried reading it in 2008 when it was first published. I tried reading it when it won the Booker that year, and many other times. I couldn’t.

Till I did a couple of days ago, and well, it turned out to be the first read of 2021. I must say that I was left disappointed. I could not empathise with any character. I mean I so wanted to with Balram at least. The one who rises above the very real and deep-rooted caste system. The one who does it all, no matter what it takes. It is Balram who is narrating the story. He could also be an unreliable narrator, but I was willing to believe it all. I was hanging on to every word till I stopped.

Balram Halwai is the protagonist of The White Tiger, or perhaps it is circumstances of one and millions of Indians who are drummed into believing that they have to serve. So, he serves. He is the son of a rickshaw puller, born in the heartland of India. He works at a tea-stall, also crushes coal, and dreams of a better life. Opportunity knocks when a big landlord hires him as a chauffeur for his son, daughter-in-law, and also to do other tasks around the house. For him, life is better when he is asked to move to Delhi with the couple, and thereon he plans his escape, so he can be a man who is at the top of the pyramid of life.

Yes, Adiga tries hard to speak of poverty, caste system, discrimination, of what he calls the “Rooster Coop” – as a metaphor for describing the oppression of the poor in the country. He does all of this, but somehow, I couldn’t find any nuance. The writing failed to make an impact. I couldn’t feel anything for any character. I did guffaw in very few places, but that was that. I did turn the pages quickly because it is that kind of read. Perhaps the very few Booker winning titles, that are actually readable. Maybe I read it because of the hype of the movie that releases on the 22nd of this month, starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkumar Rao. Whatever it is, the first read of the year turned out to be a dud.

Books and Authors mentioned in The White Tiger:

  • Harry Potter Series
  • Rumi
  • Iqbal
  • Mirza Ghalib
  • James Hadley Chase
  • Kahlil Gibran
  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
  • The Joy of Sex
  • Desmond Bagley

Playlist for The White Tiger:

  • Hazaron Khwaaishein Aisi by Shubha Mudgal
  • Fields of Gold by Sting
  • On My Way Home by Enya
  • I Want to Break Free by Queen
  • Return to Innocence by Enigma
  • Jawaane Jaaneman
  • Changes by Tara George
  • Hey Jude by The Beatles
  • Freedom by George Michael
  • Dil Jalane ki Baat by Farida Khannum

Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale

Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale Title: Jaipur Journals
Author: Namita Gokhale
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670093557
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Jaipur Journals is the kind of book that will work its way to your heart – bit by bit. It is the kind of book that will make you chuckle in several places, even if you haven’t been to the Jaipur Literature Festival (where the book is set) and will also make you want to pack your bags and go there. Jaipur Journals is a melting pot of a book, I think, and more. You will notice characters and at once you know them – they could be anyone you have met or heard of, and yet seem new and delightful. What I loved the most about the book is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Ms. Gokhale has the knack of telling you all (or making it seem like that) and then showing only what she wants to.

From a septuagenarian who has completed her semi-fictional novel (over and over again) but does not want to publish it, to people who are receiving threat letters at the festival, from lost lovers meeting at the festival, to a young girl who has found her way to the greatest literary show on earth through a blogging contest, to a cat-burglar who is now a poet, Jaipur Journals promises all of this, in all its eccentricities and more.

The book goes back and forth in almost every characters’ life and yet doesn’t feel too long or overwhelming. In fact, if anything I thought it ended too soon. Also, it is such a light read that you do not even know when time flies, and that too me is the greatest quality of a good book – readability and engagement, which Jaipur Journals manages spot on.

Jaipur Journals is that friend you speak with about books, the publishing industry, and how perhaps the culture of reading is either dying or not. It is about what happens at literary festivals – the usual sessions, the controversial ones, the times when love is forged, people bumping into people, and some latent hidden bitterness rearing its ugly head once in a while.

If I haven’t said it enough already in so many words, then here it is again: Read Jaipur Journals. Read it because it will make you smile, guffaw, and perhaps even let your guard down. Read it because it literally is an ode to aspiring writers, to writers who have written but do not want their work to be published, to writers who want to be published and are hesitant, to writers who shine and come into their own nonetheless.