Category Archives: September 2018 Reads

Polite Society by Mahesh Rao

PS Title: Polite Society
Author: Mahesh Rao
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0670091003
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I remember being on the fiftieth page and wanting to give up reading, “Polite Society”. I mean I had read Emma multiple times and saw no reason to continue with the shenanigans of the Delhi elite. It just didn’t make sense to me. Till I persisted of course and then too I wouldn’t really call it a smooth-sailing ride, oh but what moments we had – the book and I. It was read everywhere. I carried it everywhere with me – from the South of Mumbai (which the characters would approve of) to the North of Mumbai (don’t roll your eyes now, come on, be kind or at least pretend to be) to places I shall not mention here, but you get the drift.

So, we know “Polite Society” is modelled after Emma by Austen. Austen brings it out in us – as writers and readers to take the imaginary baton and pass it on, keep passing it on, and more so till something can be done with it. When something isn’t Aisha (thank God for that) or even Bride and Prejudice (thank Heavens, I left in the interval), and something then becomes a Bridget Jones’ Diary (the sequel was a disaster) or even Polite Society (the right turn on the 75th page or so).

“Polite Society” is an out and out, witty and most certainly a satire that you just cannot put down after a couple of chapters in. Might I also add, that it is dangerous and quite risky to adapt an Austen novel. It isn’t about the time or the characters or even relevance (some works are universal and break through barriers of time, no matter what), it is about the urgency, the speed, the context needs to drive fast in this time and age and not languid as Emma or Mansfield Park is. Rao takes care of that aspect brilliantly.

Set in contemporary Lutyens’ Delhi, we meet Ania Khurana, a native of Prithviraj Road. From the first page, you know that you have bumped into Emma. Miss Taylor is Renu bua, Ania’s unmarried aunt who she eventually sets up with Colonel Rathore. Dimple of course is modelled after Miss Harriet who is Ania’s special project to work on. Mr. Knightley is Dev, a close friend of the Khuranas. And the stage is set, well almost.

We all then know how it proceeds, don’t we? Ania is a 20-something who just is a meddler and thinks she can make matches, after she sets up her aunt with Colonel Rathore. All she wants now is to find a great match for Dimple, which of course she fails at miserably. So, what is different in this book you ask? Isn’t it just like Emma? Well, I revere Austen and everything she ever wrote, including her letters. I think for the major part so does Rao. Actually, throughout the book that is.

Till the third portion of the book when things become darker and oh so yummy! There are a lot of twists and turns which as a reader you will not see coming and which as a reviewer, I just cannot disclose (spoilers and all that, you know). The framework of Emma is intact, and yet Rao has given himself and the characters more than enough room to play and act out on their own. The style of writing also veers right from the very beginning – an almost mocking tone used for Lutyens’ Delhi and what they represent. Unlike Austen, who wrote in the third person, Rao takes the route of making his characters visible – they are transparent to the reader and have the much-needed gravitas.

At the same time in “Polite Society”, Rao’s maturity comes from the auxiliary factors – the sights, the smells, the touch and what Delhi and its people are made of. There is the sense of discomfort present in all characters – it’s as though they are aware of their shortcomings and flaws and yet will never call them out for what they are. There are neat sub-plots, that when mingle as well do not cause confusion or stir up a storm for the reader.

What is also of interest is how Rao’s characters demand empathy and in more than one-way Mahesh Rao gives it to them straight up. Whether it is Dimple’s dilemma at balancing Ania’s decisions and hers at the same time, or Ania’s failed attempts over and over again, there is always empathy. There are no caricaturist Austen-inspired genteel creatures so to say. The world of Lutyens’ Delhi as presented in “Polite Society” is cleverly funny and satirical, though sometimes it might feel a tad bit exaggerated. There is a lot of back and forth in the plot structure and sometimes internalisation, but it is needed to propel the book. All in all, “Polite Society” is a very interesting and dynamic read, which most of the times comes into its own, and away from the shadow of Austen.

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A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips

CP Title: A View of the Empire at Sunset
Author: Caryl Phillips
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374283612
Genre: Literary Fiction, Biographical
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

First, read this book. Then read all works by Jean Rhys, besides Wide Sargasso Sea. Or read all works by Jean Rhys and then read this book. Anyway, please do read Jean Rhys. She was a wonderful writer and I am only too glad that we have more of her to read, or even more about her, which Caryl Phillips does a brilliant job of in his book, “A View of the Empire at Sunset”.

And might I also say that this book will not be a happy read. It is dark, sullen and unforgettable (at least to me it was and still is). The book is a fictionalised telling of the life and times of Jean Rhys. Caryl Phillips does a brilliant job of fictionalising the life of Gwen Williams (Jean Rhys’s real name), the Welsh doctor’s daughter, who always wanted to be an insider to an English world, but was never one. The constant theme of home and missing what is home and then the back and forth to find home will keep you hooked and yet there were places where I thought: Wish he had written more about her writing life.

“A View of the Empire at Sunset” is about Gwen’s loves, her failed marriages and what she kept searching in men – and the translation of that in her novels and short stories (that is if you have read works, you can for sure see glimpses of those men and her in them). Her constant disappointments in love, miserable assessment of self and alcoholism loom large through her characters in Voyage in the Dark, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight.

The place and setting of A View of the Empire at Sunset is for sure atmospheric – set in the waning years of the British Empire – Gwen thus is always an outsider from her West Indies birthplace, to her return now and then. The novel begins and ends in 1936, thirty years after she was sent to school and thirty years before she published Wide Sargasso Sea, which gave her career a boost like no other.

Having said that, Rhys’s travails are painful. At times, I just couldn’t bear to read about them. In all of this though, there are snatches of pure beauty and grace in the book, that Phillips manages to give us quite elegantly. Please do read this book if you want to know more about Gwen Williams the person and lesser about Jean Rhys, the writer.

 

Miss Subways by David Duchovny

Miss SubwaysTitle: Miss Subways
Author: David Duchovny
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374210403
Genre: Fantasy, Literary Fiction, Humour
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Miss Subways is all about New York. Even if you haven’t been there, reading this book will just make you want to. And if you have been there, then you would want to visit it again and again after reading this love story with an edge, and loads of humour. I absolutely loved Duchovny’s Holy Cow and this one a little more.

Emer is a simple woman living in New York City who takes the subway, buys ice cream from the shop around the corner, aspires to become a writer, and lives with her boyfriend Con. That’s essentially her life, on almost a daily basis. And then it changes completely as one fine day something extraordinary occurs and Emer findself in a world full of mythical figures from around the world – in a New York she cannot seem to recognize.

The book is part fairy tale, part love story, part fantasy, and what does it take really to want to have it all. David Duchnovny, the writer is so imaginative and part of it of course comes from the acting – and it shows in the sub-plots – the inspiration from Irish and global mythical figures and the linking of them to Emer and Con’s lives.

You think the story is going one way, till it goes the other and you are left stunned as a reader, not knowing what is going on, till you do. There is this sense of magic realism, and an irreverent tone to the novel which I enjoyed a lot. There are like I said a lot of fables – from almost every part of the world which makes it even more exciting. Miss Subways is a read that will keep you guessing almost every chapter.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water CureTitle: The Water Cure
Author: Sophie Mackintosh
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241334744
Genre: Women, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I finished reading The Water Cure at neck-break speed. There was no other way to read this book. Yes, it started off a little slow. Yes, it took its time to grow on me but when it did, there was no turning back. There is a lot happening in the book – it is dystopian, it is feministic (well, you will struggle to see it but its there) and in most parts, it is also very fantastical. It may seem that there is no story really but there is, and the writing is on point – every word and every sentence where it should be.

At various points in the book, you might even think that the book is loosely based on King Lear and maybe it is, but it is so much more than that because the King soon disappears in the book. House on the island, alone by the sea. Three girls, Grace, Lia, and Sky live with their parents’ Mother and King (see the use of a patriarchy term right here – while the parents have no names, the father is always known as King).

Their worldly knowledge comes only from what the King dishes them. They have no contact with the outside world. They are in a world of their own. Till of course, like I said, King disappears, Mother takes over and their world crumbles as other men wash up on their beach, lay claim to their land and everything changes for them – in an instant.

Mackintosh’s writing isn’t easy but it is extremely engaging. There are times when you feel the book isn’t even dystopian as it claims to be, but there are only parts that are far and few in-between. The plot is for sure disturbing, but if it is to your taste, then I would recommend that you carry forth and finish the read, because it is extremely rewarding. The storytelling is unique and mesmerizing. Mackintosh is a new voice that has to be heralded, and this one most certainly read like a debut. It is that good.

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

The Shepherd's Hut Title: The Shepherd’s Hut
Author: Tim Winton
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374262327
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

“The Shepherd’s Hut” by Tim Winton is unlike anything I have read this year. It is experimental, it is thrilling and takes the reader on a self-discovery along with the protagonist in so many ways. There are elements to the novel that the reader realizes only either half-way in the book or when the book is done with and you are ruminating over it. Because ruminate you will. It is that kind of book.

The story is about Jaxie Clackton, a brutalized rural youth who is on the run from the scene of his father’s violent death and heads to the wilds of Western Australia. All he wants is to be left alone and he thinks he will survive with a rifle and a water jug. He is so mistaken about that. He ends up meeting once a priest, Fintan MacGillis and there begins the story of an unlikely friendship, love and yearning.

I loved Cloudstreet. That’s the only other book I have read by Winton. In comparison, it was an easier read. The Shepherd’s Hut doesn’t make it easy at all when it comes to cultural references. I found myself reaching to Google after almost every chapter. Barring that, Winton has captured the essence of isolation and solitude beautifully, almost close to perfection. The dreadful landscape, the tension of the characters and the connecting storyline falls perfectly in place with the harsh truth – just like a jigsaw puzzle.

You find yourself empathizing with both characters, their intentions, their aspirations, but it is Jaxie who will eventually take your heart away. What I also found most surprising is that I never got bored in the entire book given that it had only two major characters and almost no one else. Winton does a marvelous job of keeping the reader engaged throughout the book. The characters are not only fascinating but also extremely engrossing. It is the language, landscape and Jaxie and Fintan that make this book what it is – a heady ride of self-discovery and friendship.