Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Read 40 of 2022. The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

Title: The Swimmers
Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree
ISBN:  9780241543887
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

We descent into something unpleasant. We fall toward it. We do not know how it happens, but when it does, we don’t even know how to witness the deterioration, because people around us are busy doing that. Not only witnessing it, but also remembering it for us. The big and the small incidents. The ones we have forgotten along the way, and the ones we will not remember soon enough. It isn’t that we choose to forget (or sometimes we do), but that’s how it is. Memory is like water.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a book about memory, about its loss, time standing still for some, maybe also about redemption, and forgiving oneself to a large extent. The Swimmers is a short book that cuts through you with its brilliant prose, reminding you of the transient nature of memory. We take such pride sometimes in remembering. I know I do, till I cannot remember the word for “chair” one day and I lose my bearings over it.

The Swimmers reminded me of my living parent and her mortality. Of how she could suffer from dementia some day and what would I do in that situation. The Swimmers, as the title suggests, is about a couple of swimmers who swim in an underground pool, away from the rest of the world, in their own blissful bubble. Till cracks appear in the pool, and everything changes. They aren’t allowed to swim anymore. Alice, one of the swimmers is slowly and steadily suffering from frontotemporal dementia – changing, drifting, losing her personality – cracks that take over her life.

Otsuka writes beautifully and with so much grace, that you wish the book were longer.  She makes you a part of the story. You become one of the swimmers (even if you are petrified of large water bodies like me). You become the crack in the pool. Otsuka makes you believe you are broken (which you probably are anyway). She speaks of swimming as an act of praying. A ritual that has to be followed, speaking of people who undertake it, who become obsessed with it, who feel safe because of it, focusing finally on one person who perhaps represents them all – Alice. Alice who is now forgetting, soon becoming the forgotten.

As the chapters progress, the book of course becomes less about swimming, but more about memory and dementia – in a way also about swimming through one’s mind to remember, to hold on to what one can, to the husband and the children and their perspectives as you are swimming away from them into oblivion. Otsuka writes about it all – the past, the present, and what might shape the future. A chapter on the home, Bellavista, in which Alice is a resident after things go south is written in the most dystopian and clinical way (as it must) and shakes you up as a reader. Each chapter by Otsuka is carefully plotted – no sentence is out of place. Each memory, each object, each incident mentioned in the book makes you as a reader feel enough and more – about your life, the objects that surround you, the incidents that have taken place in your life, and finally about the impermanence of it all.

The Swimmers is a book that says so much in so little. What it feels like to lose a child, to move to a new country, to lose someone you loved a long time ago, the children you raised and what has become of them now – all of this in relation to what you were and what you are.

Julie Otsuka is a writer of great brevity. Her books have always been short, and yet communicate what they want to. Her characters are mostly lost, each searching and finding themselves, as though lost in a maze. Once again, I cannot gush enough about her writing prowess. The Swimmers is a book that will leave you thinking so much more about memory, forgetting, death, and how life fits in all of this.

Read 30 of 2022. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park. Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur

Love in the Big City by Sang Young ParkTitle: Love in the Big City
Author: Sang Young Park
Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
ISBN: 978-1911284659
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction Pages: 231
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Sang Young Park’s prose along with the translation of Anton Hur did for me what Sally Rooney couldn’t, and I have finally found my closure for not enjoying any of Rooney’s works.

Disclaimer: This is the only time I have brought up Rooney in this review.

Love in the Big City is again one of the International Booker 2022 Long-listed titles that resonated with me like no other, besides Heaven. It is a story of friendship, of love, of lust, and essentially of what it is to navigate all of this in a big city. It is messy, it is loud, and sometimes insufferable as well – the way all love is meant to be, but Sang Young Park and Anton Hur give it another dimension – that of pained self-realisation and temperaments that constantly hover on the page.

The story is of the narrator, Young, and his coming-of-age – from college to postgraduate life in Seoul. The book is about the loves of his life (some not so much loves as episodes of lust) – his roommate, Jaehee who moves out after marriage, his cancer-stricken mother, his activist ex he calls Hyung, and Gyu-ho, who makes up most of the second half of the novel.

As a middle-aged (I cannot even bring myself to say it but it’s the truth) gay man in India, I could relate to so much of the book. Of the relationship with the mother – constantly mercurial, of the men in his life, and of a woman who is your best friend and most of all the gay identity that runs throughout the book.

Young is complicated. It is not easy to like Young and yet you do, because we see so much of ourselves in Young, at least I did.  We lead quiet queer lives, till it isn’t all that quiet anymore. The transformation of the queer life from the 20s to mid-30s is mind-boggling. We go from one extreme to another. We want to be visible and that’s what Young does till he doesn’t want to be unacknowledged.

Relationships are fragile, emotions even more so. The translation by Anton Hur depicts all of this and more, adding a new dimension of his own to the novel. The pride and shame and loneliness of being gay is so apparent and palpable that it scared me as a single gay man in the big city – where everything is big and sometimes all you need is small, tender expressions of love. I search for them. Constantly.

Read 28 of 2022. The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Title: The Island of Missing Trees
Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780241435007
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 354
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The thing about books like The Island of Missing Trees is that they never slip from memory. They are always fresh and clear. The plot, the characters, and sometimes even certain lines. The Island of Missing Trees is so much and only Shafak could’ve skilfully managed to string it all together, without any thread going to waste.

The Island of Missing Trees is a love story – not just of two people, but also of a fig tree, of a teenager and her family, of love that we have for our homelands from which we are forced to flee, or have to in order to lead better lives, and more than anything else, it is a love story of people and nature.

Two teenagers fall in love in Cyprus – one Turkish, the other Greek. They meet at a taverna which is home to them. Kostas and Defne meet in secret, away from people’s prying eyes, in a tavern with a fig tree at its center. The fig tree watching all, observing their love, and jotting memories as time goes by. A war breaks out. The lovers are separated only to meet decades later, and what happens after that is one of the plot points of the book I don’t want to reveal.

The book travels between the past and the present, giving the readers the perspective of the fig tree, of Kostas and Defne’s daughter Ada, and more importantly of what happens to countries when borders are most sought after.

Shafak’s writing is emotional, it is gut-wrenching in so many places – when she speaks of home, of what it is to be driven away, to see neighbours turning on you – it makes you think of the countries currently in conflict and it is all about this – land for them, home for the people who live there.

The layers to this novel are plenty. On one hand, Shafak tackles mental health and its navigation, on the other – the country at war not only with outsiders, but with itself when it comes to love, of ties that are thicker than blood, and ultimately on the idea of what is home and what makes it familiar. I hope this novel makes it to the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Read 17 of 2022. How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Title: How High We Go in the Dark
Author: Sequoia Nagamatsu
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1526637192
Genre: Literary Fiction, Climate Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I don’t think my review will do justice to this book. What can I say about a book that makes you see the world differently, makes you feel more, and more than anything, makes you a better person in a manner that you didn’t imagine? The question asked really is: What happens to humanity when the world is coming to an end? What happens to the nature of humans when the world isn’t what they used to know, and when death moves way ahead of life?

How High We Go in the Dark isn’t a pandemic novel, though it is marketed as one. Yes, there is a virus in the book, discovered 30,000 years later, the one that creates havoc, something that we have experienced in the last two years as well. However, this book is more about hope, love, missed opportunities, family, community, and ultimately healing.

Nagamatsu’s book is epic in the sense of the stories it tells – the threads that are connected, the characters that are only trying to make sense of the world they are in which isn’t theirs anymore, and how we navigate grief and loss. The book starts in Siberia where unearthing a girl releases a virus that destroys human organs. And from there Nagamatsu takes us to the City of Laughter, an amusement park where children infected with the virus can enjoy one last fun-filled day before riding a deathly roller-coaster. There is a scientist whose experiments on a pig take an emotional turn when the pig starts communicating. Funerary services dominate the landscape – enabling ways of grieving and not so.

Grief, and what it does to humans and non-humans as well is at the heart of this book. It is about connections and Nagamatsu does a stunning job of expressing it through his characters – who all want to reach out to one another, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. I loved how he brought back the beginning of the book right towards the end, which left me stumped and awestruck. The writing is not only powerful but also contemplative and deeply engaging. How High We Go in the Dark is hands down one of the best books I’ve read this month.

Read 15 of 2021. City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts by Annie Zaidi

City of Incident by Annie ZaidiTitle: City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts
Author: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9390652129
Genre: Literary Fiction, Novella
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Sometimes an author doesn’t have to say too much to make points felt, or to express emotions. I have always been taken in by the concept of vignettes in literature – of how some writers are capable of writing them to the point of distinction – each appearing as an entire universe in its own structure and some who somehow fail to achieve that and get caught in detail.

Annie Zaidi’s new offering “City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts” is a great example of what to do when writing slice-of-life fiction. To be minimal – to only use words that matter and not more than what are needed – to the point of making the reader feel the claustrophobia, more so when a city such as Bombay is being described from various vantage points.

Zaidi captures people from various walks of life – people we see and sometimes fail to as we lead our lives. She speaks of conditions and circumstances quite nonchalantly – as though they don’t mean anything but don’t be fooled by the lightness – because there is so much to uncover at the end of it.

Situations are primary – highlighting them isn’t the motive of this book, I think. It is all about living and what it takes to live in a metropolis. Zaidi’s writing feels like I am in a bubble and there is no way out. From railway platforms to overcrowded trains, to homes that provide no respite, and traffic signals that make you see events you don’t want to. She documents all of it, being almost a chronicler of disappointed lives, mercurial beings, and tortured souls.

City of Incident feels like all those lives have merged together in one small book. Each life appears different and unique, only for Zaidi to make us by the end of it, feel like they all are universal – same and without distinction. City of Incident makes you stop in your tracks and observe people around you closely and with more introspection. I highly recommend this read.