Category Archives: Literary Fiction

If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives Title: If I Had Two Lives
Author: Abbigail N. Rosewood
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609455217
Genre: Literary Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Sometimes you just don’t know what to make of a book till you are done reading and pondering a bit over it. If I Had Two Lives was that kind of read for me. This is a coming of age book, it is also a book about an immigrant in the United States of America, and it is also about going back home. Honestly, it might also seem been there, done that (and I also felt that on reading the blurb), but it isn’t that at all. I think every book no matter how similar the plot line to another book, always has something different to say – no matter in what capacity.

If I Had Two Lives is the story of a child who has been isolated from the world in a secret military camp, with a distant mother. Distant mothers as we all know only lead to more mental health issues in all of fiction. Anyway, there she meets a sympathetic soldier and another girl, leading to a very unlikely friendship.

The scene then jumps to New York, where as an adult, she is torn between people who are no longer a part of her life and people who are. She understands that for all of it to make sense, she has to return to where she started from: Vietnam. This in short is the plot of If I Had Two Lives.

Why did I like it?

Rosewood’s writing is sparse and most effective. Most of the novel is without names, except for some and you will understand why as you read the book. I think it is actually because of the title and what it means – the sense of identity (can there be one without a name?), memory (how twisted and convenient it can be), and what is the value we place on people in our lives?

If I Had Two Lives seemed like not a debut, but a work of someone experienced. I think it is also about how well you tell a story, and what do you want to communicate to the readers. In this case, it was the brutality of dislocation and the force of compassion that came through stunningly, with every turn of the page. It is a modern tale, seeped in the past and that’s what makes it what it is: intriguing and gorgeously written. A great debut that deserves all the attention.

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The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

The Body Myth Title: The Body Myth
Author: Rheea Mukherjee
Publisher: The Unnamed Press
ISBN: 978-1944700843
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 234
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

There are some books that hit you unexpectedly. You don’t expect anything out of them, maybe because you don’t know what to expect which then turns out to be great, when a certain threshold is met. This is what happened to me while I was reading The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee. It is a book about love and love that knows no boundaries or limits. The kind that we all want to experience and yet are afraid of what will happen to us when we do. It is all-consuming and will just not let you be till you are a part of it.

The Body Myth is about Mira – a teacher living in the heart of a fictional city called Suryam in India. It is the place where the Rasagura fruit grows. The only place as a matter of fact. Mira lives by herself and leads a quiet life. She is recently widowed and is trying to cope with loss and loneliness. One fine day she comes across Sara, who suffers from a seizure in the park, and Mira but obviously tends to her. Thereon she meets Rahil, Sara’s husband and before she knows it, her life is on a course of an emotional rollercoaster ride – filled with angst, love, loneliness, and desire.

Mukherjee’s writing is to the point. She doesn’t extend herself without reason. There are of course a lot of metaphors ascribed to the Rasagura (a fictional fruit by the way) – its sweet and sour nature and how it is meant to be full of mysticism (really need to read the book to understand this at a deeper level). The relationship between Mira and Sara is astounding – how it is so much more without stating the obvious and how Rahil then is a part of it all or not. Mukherjee’s characters are willing to change and embrace it even though sudden. What starts off as a friendship between Sara and Mira, and then becomes this triad of a relationship with Rahil in the fray as well is a thing to experience while reading.

The Body Myth is a book about relationships that aren’t easy to define. They just are. While people may judge and do what they do best, the relationship continues. I loved how the three of them were discussing, loving, figuring out the dynamics, and just being. I also think that one must read this book with an open mind and heart, or it will just not sink in. The end is inevitable but the book leaves you with a lot of questions about the body, and how we think we know ourselves, but do we really? The tone of the book is just perfect, and you actually also get a holistic view of the situation. The Body Myth might make a lot of people uncomfortable, however, it is a book of our times and Mukherjee definitely knows how to address emotions and thoughts we all feel and think, but do not say them out loud.

 

Dangerlok by Eunice De Souza

Dangerlok by Eunice De Souza Title: Dangerlok
Author: Eunice De Souza
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0143065074
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Pages: 166
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember reading Dangerlok a long time ago and being so moved by it. Nothing was different this time around as well. I felt more, if not the same. Eunice De Souza, being the poet, she was makes you see the way sentences can be strung together and how poetically prose can be handled. I think this is true of most writers I have read who are poets first and then writers of prose. Having said that, I think everyone who is from Bombay or not, should read Dangerlok. It encapsulates the city like no other I’ve read set in the city.

Eunice’s Dangerlok is precise, exact, and doesn’t waste time. Its brevity astounds and makes you understand that a book need not be lengthy to say what it has to. So, what is Dangerlok about?

Dangerlok is Mumbai – the swirl, the scum, the acid aftertaste, the lingering, the seductive city who lures you and then enters your head and heart like a disease. And in between all this stands the protagonist, Rina Ferreira (positively modelled after Eunice) who is an English Literature Teacher, who lives in Santacruz East with her two parrots – Totha and Tothi and her hoard of books, writing letters to David (a man who she once loved and may be still does), enjoying a casual cab ride, observing her neighbours, friends, cabwallahs, the existence of them all and the humour and irony behind things that seem so little and normal on an average day. She comes across Dangerlok on a daily basis while smoking her cigarettes and drinking her jungli tea. She observes. She notices and dashes off letters to David about the world that surrounds her.

I cannot put a finger on what I felt while reading this book – I loved it to such a great extent. It was the description of the small things – Totha sitting on her head as she opens the door to a neighbour, the memory of having bought David Copperfield for four bucks, her worry over her parrots and hence she does not leave the city for long, the fact that she does not want to be “involved in life” and yet her heart goes out to the stray pup, nutty clerks at the post office who refuse to acknowledge, and many such instances. De Souza gives Rina her space to play, her canvas to paint and yet it’s sad that the canvas is only a mere 124-page long novella. It makes you yearn for more. There is ennui and there is hope. But you better watch out, because chances of seeing Dangerlok everywhere around you are not that slim.

 

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Celestial Bodies by Jokha AlharthiTitle: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Alharthi
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
ISBN: 978-1912240166
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One thing about being on any shadow panel of any literary award is that you by default get to read great diverse literature. Being on the shadow panel of Man Booker International Prize for two years now has made my literary life so to say not only enriching but also illuminating. It has made me see perspectives, change opinions, remain steadfast about some opinions, and over all made me interact with people across the world about literature and life.

This time around, Celestial Bodies from the long and the short list is that one book that enriched my reading life and to a very large extent made me see lives that weren’t otherwise known to me. Anyway, back to Celestial Bodies. This is one of the top three books I am rooting for, for the win that is. It is a story of womanhood – of it means to the women in the book and to the society that has built structures of patriarchy to be followed. At the same time, it is about the changing socio-economic structures and how those impact the family.

There is Maya, the eldest daughter of the family who prefers not to challenge what the family expects of her and agrees to marry the son of a rich merchant. The second one, Asma seeks an education. The youngest daughter, Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who has told her that he will be his partner. All he does is immigrate to Canada and all her hopes are dashed. The younger generation then moves to Muscat and there also their lives are not easy. At the same time, the book is also about the men, whom we get to know of as we go along – Maya’s husband, his father, and not to forget the slave system at play which bothered me greatly as I was reading the book.

There is a lot going on in the book – from the emancipation of women to what men feel to the social structure of Oman, and also not to forget the younger generation. Alharthi packs all of it together tightly and not once do you feel that the strands of any story are left untended to. From the village of al-Awafi (fictional by the way) to Muscat, each phase and turn of events is seen through different eyes – sometimes unbelievable and others completely heartbreaking. The writing is empathetic for sure, and yet doesn’t shy from the grim reality of the world of patriarchy, in a land ruled by men.

Marilyn Booth’s translation is on point. It isn’t easy to translate a book of multiple narrations and sometimes also leaning toward stream of consciousness (mildly). Celestial Bodies has the dreamlike quality to it, without being superficial or flimsy and that’s what you take as a reader – the inherent story, the characters, and what you end up feeling.

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi Title: Small Days and Nights
Author: Tishani Doshi
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-9388912709
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Small Days and Nights had me break into a sweat for most part. I fervently turned the pages, wanting to know what would happen next to Grace and Lucia, to their dogs, and Mallika. For most part, I was on the edge of the proverbial seat so to say, and for the other part, I was mulling, thinking, pondering, and submitting to Doshi’s writing and worldview.

I recall going through the same feeling of angst, hopelessness, and some hope while devouring The Pleasure Seekers in 2010. It has been eight years now and Doshi’s writing is just as evocative, raw, and with a passion that will perhaps burn the reader.

The world Tishani Doshi builds in Small Days and Nights is a small one. Often uncomplicated even, often without layers, and is all about the day to day living of two sisters – who have discovered each other late in life. Grace stumbled upon the existence of Lucia (who is living the Down Syndrome), as she returns to Pondicherry, where her dead mother awaits cremation. Lucia has been living in a residential facility their mother helped build. Grace moves Lucia with her to a tiny coastal village in Tamil Nadu – Paramankeni, a place that is at least three hours away from most human contact. And not to forget, the year is 2010. Grace and Lucia live quiet (or so it seems) lives with Mallika, a village woman who lives on their property as a cook and a guard, also looking after the many adopted dogs.

This novel is deceptive in the sense that while it seems to be calm on the surface, a lot is taking place beneath the surface – Lost relationships that refuse to be found, parental bonds (their Italian father is in Venice, who was estranged from their mother many years ago and is acousticphobic as well) that are not quite there, a family that isn’t your typical family (but what is a typical family anyway?), and women who are cocooned in a world of their own, where men will not let them be. That theme runs throughout the novel – incidents happen on their property, men look creepily, and the sea rages in the distance.

Doshi creates a world that has its moments of grace, of kindness, of empathy beyond recognition and yet there are times through her writing where darkness makes itself known. Her characters love and also fall short of love. Her writing is razor-like and also quite a balm at most times – it soothes and cuts sharp. It seethes with anger and knows when to smile. The descriptions linger long after, the taste of the sea remains, the sound of the dogs barking, and the restlessness strike home.

Grace and her parents are aware of their failings and that’s what makes them so real and at the same time quite unforgiving. You don’t feel for Grace – it is hard to, but as a reader you understand loneliness, and the right to claim life in whatever capacity. Women’s experience in public and personal places, of caring for someone with special needs, forgiveness, and the need to understand that all of us are perhaps sailing in the same boat is the heart of Small Days and Nights, and yet there is the awareness that it can all be undone quite easily.