Category Archives: Family

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Title: The Dutch House
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526618757
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a novel of many wonders. It is a box of things that are seen at first glance, only to discover a secret opening, where new things emerge from. This book gives, and gives, and gives some more. As a reader, as a fan of Patchett’s works, as an ardent admirer of what she puts to paper, my experience with The Dutch House has been surreal, mixed with nostalgia, and snatches of memory of my own childhood (though not this morbid or unfortunate).

What is a novel? What should be a novel? Is there such a thing as an ideal novel? Who decides that, if there is something like that? The critic? The reader? Or all of us, trying to find answers to questions of meaning of life, hope, and love as we turn the pages of novel after novel, searching for truths unknown as we move from one work of fiction to another?

The Dutch House is a fairy-tale. It is also gothic in nature when you least expect it to be. It is also full of misery, and then surprises you with moments of hope and togetherness. It is the story of two siblings – how they lose their home, how they understand each other (or not), and how they reclaim some of their lost home.

We are introduced to Danny (the narrator), and his older sister Maeve right at the beginning of the book. Their introduction to their would-be stepmother Andrea is where the book starts, and that’s when the series of events unfold in front of the reader – travelling between the past and the present of the novel.

The fairy-tale element runs strong, with a fair share of the Gothic that adds to the strong plot. Not to forget the way Patchett builds on the characters – from the housekeepers to the people that enter and exit from the siblings’ lives. Each character and each plot point is thought of to the last minute detail and maybe therefore this novel is as close to being perfect or it already is in more than one way.

What I found most interesting was the use of narration – by using the first-person narrator technique in a novel where time is of most importance, we see events unfold through two perspectives – the younger Danny and the older Danny. A doppelgänger effect, adding another layer to the complexity of the book.

The Dutch House is deceptively simple. It is a book that seems so easy to read on the surface, and it is. However, it is in joining the dots that are far and wide that adds to the reading experience. It is for this reason and more that Patchett is one of my top 10 favourite writers and will always be. She makes you feel, she makes you internalise how you think and feel as you read her books, and more than anything else she reminds you that being humane is the heart of it all.

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The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay Title: The Far Field
Author: Madhuri Vijay
Publisher: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
ISBN: 9789353570958
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 444
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I honestly do not know how to review The Far Field. It is one of those books that has so much to offer that one doesn’t know where to start talking about it. The varied themes, the writing, the plot, the characterization, or even the way it often makes you think about your relationship with people and the world at large. To me, The Far Field is one of the best books I’ve read this year and rightly so.

I started the book with great trepidation given the negative reviews I had read online, but all it took me was a couple of pages in to dismiss them. This is the kind of book that unknowingly creeps up on you and sticks. It stays. It makes you mull and wonder and often even makes you take sides.

You may think Shalini, the protagonist is selfish. You may think of her as inconsiderate in so many places and might even be enraged at her choices, but having said that all she does is travel from Bangalore to Kashmir in search of a man – a salesman by the name Bashir Ahmed to find answers, in the wake of her mother’s death. A mother who was as determined as she was sharp with her tongue and opinions. A mother who struck an unlikely friendship with Bashir. A mother who was also a bored housewife, an intelligent one at that, and someone who just wanted some attention and care.

The Far Field to me is not a political story just because it is set mostly in Kashmir. It is about people, it is about family, community, and the bonds we forge, rather unknowingly. The book is about what we hold on to and what we leave behind. It is about Shalini and what happens to her and the people she meets or wants to meet.

Madhuri Vijay writes brutally. She bares it all for the reader to see, to hurt with the characters, and feel this twinge of sadness as things do not turn out the way you wanted to. The reader is involved, and by that I refer to myself. I don’t want to give away too much about the story but be rest assured that you will find it very hard to put down this book once you’ve begun (or so I hope).

 The Far Field will have you question your ties with family. The things we choose to say with such ease and the things we do not. The ones we think we communicate about and the ones which we don’t are the most important. Something always gets lost. The book like I said is about family, the ties we forge along the way, and what comes of them in the end, if there is an end at all.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence. Edited by Michele Filgate

What My Mother and I Don't Talk About Title: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break The Silence
Edited by Michele Filgate
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-1982107345
Genre: Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Relationships are complex. Most relationships are not easy to navigate around. I think the one we share with our parents is most difficult. I have always had a problem expressing what I feel to my parents. I think it just stemmed from the fact that we do not speak enough or try to make ourselves heard enough. This has nothing to do with love not being there, or not being brought up in a healthy environment (at least in my case). It is just that we have not learned how to communicate with them. Perhaps that needs to change and maybe it will. Only time and effort can tell, to be honest.

What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About is a compilation of essays by fifteen writers, edited by Michele Filgate. As the title suggests it is about breaking the silence. It is about talking to our mothers about what matters or has mattered the most. The collection starts with Michele’s essay about being abused by her stepfather. This took her almost more than a decade to write about and then to think how it would affect her relationship with her mother. This in turn encouraged her to reach out to other writers and see how they look at their relationships with their mothers.

The collection see-saws from one extreme to another – while some writers are extremely close to their mothers, some are estranged beyond repair. It is the question of also mothers being first homes as we make our way into the world and a support system for most. The one whose validation we seek the most and the one with whom we also fight the most. This collection is solid and comes from a diverse selection of writers and what they do not talk about: family, love, abuse, secrets, expectations, and disappointments to say the least.

My favourite pieces from the book were the ones written by Alexander Chee (about his sexual abuse and his not being able to fit in at school at the same time), Michele Filgate (as I mentioned it is about abuse by her stepfather), Brandon Taylor, (most heart wrenching according to me about how he wish he could’ve understood his mother better), and Nayomi Munaweera (she speaks about her mother’s borderline personality disorder).

Regret, estrangement, the universal feeling of love and pain are the running themes in this book. There is a common trait that we all identify and relate with: That of lack of communication. How sometimes mothers don’t listen and how we don’t say what we must. But not all of the essays stem out of pain. Some are funny (rare) and some are just looking at their mothers differently – a new perspective and realising themselves in the process, which I think we must all look at.

Reading an essay or a collection of essays such as these is so intimate that it physically hurts you. It makes you see yourself as a person and whether or not you have evolved in relation to your mother. What is the basis of your relationship with her, beside the fact that she gave birth to you? What it actually means to get closure when you need it the most? What it does to you to take the step and speak out loud? What would it then do to your other relationships, once you cross this barrier with your mother and try and face the concealed truth? We all go through this. We have all been there. This book if anything speaks to all of us and will for sure make you sit up and perhaps call your mother.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli Title: Lost Children Archive
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520610
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Lost Children Archive is a book that should be read by everyone. I think more so because it is so relevant for the times we live in, and also because it is written with such grace, delicacy, and at the same time rawness that is unfathomable. It is one of those rare books that once you start you don’t want it to end. It is like an experience that is immersive and yet so heartbreaking. You don’t want to read it, and yet you do. The wanting to read is obviously far greater, so you do – you read it, if you are me you also constantly mark, highlight, and annotate. Lines resonate, words linger, emotions are so deep-rooted that even if you haven’t experienced any of them, you feel for the characters, though they are nameless.

In 2017, Mexican-born novelist Valeria Luiselli, published a book called “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions”. This book was a result of her volunteering as a court interpreter for children – the “illegal aliens” (as they are called), helping them with intake questionnaires that might establish a case for asylum for them. The book is about her experience of also applying for a green card as she fights for the children.

Lost Children Archive, her much-anticipated new novel (and the first one written in English) is about these refugee children and their lives, it is about a family at the core of it – their lives, and ultimately about ties that bind us and the ones that don’t. Luiselli touches on a topic that is so relevant, so utterly terrifyingly heartbreaking that sometimes as a reader, it took me time to digest, assimilate, and then process my thoughts and emotions.

What I must not forget and mention here is that Lost Children Archive is a “road novel” as well. It is a journey undertaken at the start of the novel by a family – a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. A family that came together when the father and the mother, two single parents fell in love while recording the sounds of New York City. Their marriage is drifting. They are losing grip on who they used to be. The husband plans a new project to travel to the ancestral homeland of the Apaches in Arizona, she decides to go along with her daughter and his son. She plans to document sounds of refugees at the border, and also wants to find two missing, undocumented daughters of her immigrant friend.

Furthermore, there are boxes of the family that travel with them – boxes that are filled and some that aren’t. Boxes that mean something, that are heavy with meaning and emotion, of work documented by the husband and the wife and what remains of their union. Luiselli captures the voices of the children beautifully. The 10-year old son (from the husband) and the 5-year old daughter (from the wife) are seamlessly integrated into the narrative of adults – asking, wondering, sometimes taking pictures (you will learn of this as you read along), and questioning their identity and family as a unit.

Luiselli breaks the mould so many times as she tells the story – over and over again. With the contents of the boxes, the small chapters that integrate, the characters’ voices that seamlessly integrate and also stand-out most often, but above all the last twenty pages of the book are something else – a long sentence that reaches its ending with so much to already chew and mull over, leaving a void in your mind and heart.

Lost Children Archive is most certainly the novel of our times (and sadly as well). It is so many things and yet it is up to the reader what they want to take from it. The story of the refugee children is constantly told from various points of view and done so strangely and beautifully most of the time. Not to forget the character that is the US of A. Home, perhaps. The roads, the motels, the diners, the billboards, and the borders we create are covered with such eye for detail that you wonder if she wrote the book as she travelled. Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. It is about family – the breaking of one and where do other families fit in, the ones that have been broken through displacement, still seeking refuge?

Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Strike Your Heart by Amélie NothombTitle: Strike Your Heart
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609454852
Genre: Mothers and Children, Literary Fiction, Women’s Fiction,
Pages: 135
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am still reeling under the influence of Strike Your Heart by Amélie Nothomb. It is a short novel (could have been a novella if fifteen pages shorter) but the impact it has is tremendous. What a book! What a treat! And yet, it will drain you emotionally – of almost everything you possess – of course temporarily but it will.

Do not be fooled by its size. 135 pages pack a lot more what 350 pages cannot in most novels. This one is a firecracker and how! While I was reading it initially, I thought it was modelled after Madame Bovary and some of it sure was, but it was only in the first couple of twenty pages or so and then the similarity ended.

The book is about Diane but first let’s talk about Diane’s mother Marie, the one with whom it all begins. Marie who had to marry early on and give birth to Diane when she was just twenty. There is no bond between mother and daughter. Marie can’t bear to see her daughter. Diane does what she can to gain approval of her mother. Diane’s father Olivier is merely a spectator. With two more siblings, Diane’s love for her mother doesn’t diminish, till she sees her smothering her sister Célia and decides to step back and live with her maternal grandparents (there is a lot more that happens which I cannot say for now, because spoilers).

Years pass. Diane wants to pursue her dream of becoming a cardiologist (the heart connect) and at university, she befriends an assistant professor, Olivia. Olivia is strangely similar and yet so different to Marie (which Diane realizes much later). Olivia loves power and wants to feel superior to everyone around her, including her own eight-year-old daughter, Mariel. Diane’s life is thrown into a whirlwind and how it all ends up makes for the rest of the story.

“Strike Your Heart” – the very title comes from the quote by novelist Alfred de Musset, “Strike Your Heart, that is where genius lies”. This is what inspires Diane to take up medicine, this is the core of the book – the intensity of emotions and relationships – comes all from the poor old heart.

Nothomb writes with a force of a tsunami, really. Every word and sentence is not wasted. Nothing is out of place. Nothomb is cruel and yet so gentle all at the same time. She moves at a quick pace and doesn’t manage to lose out on all the essential incidents, lives, moments and the on-goings of almost all characters. Even the ones that are hidden – Diane’s brother Nicolas, her best friend Élisabeth, her father, her grandparents, and even Olivia’s husband and daughter. Nothomb has a role to be played by everyone.

“Strike Your Heart” in so many places feels so autobiographical – like it must have happened to someone the author knew or to her. The translation by Alison Anderson is spot on. She is one of my favourite translators of French to English. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is one such example of her genius translated work. Every line seems that it was meant to be there. No syntax changes and the emotion is perfect.

Here is one of my favourite lines from the book:

“She stayed for hours at the side of an old lady who was allergic to solitude”

“Strike Your Heart” will stay with you for a long time. I know it will stay with me for sure. The bitter-sweetness, the longing, the desperation, all of the validation and not to forget jealousy which is so much at the core of this wondrous read.