Tag 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 39 of 2022. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Title: Tomb of Sand
Author: Geetanjali Shree
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
ISBN: 978-1911284611
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Literature
Pages: 730
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

A book like Tomb of Sand comes once a while – encompassing everything – all of it – maybe all our stories, or some of our stories – intermingling, intertwining, greeting each other along the way, choosing whom to converse with, whom to ignore, and how to navigate life.  Stories that have a life of their own – breathing, living creations that only need an audience and Tomb of Sand will get its audience, and should – more than its fair share, because this book deserves it all.

I am gushing. I shall gush some more. So be it. Some novels do more than just provide entertainment or are more than means of passing time. They demand to be read, reread, reread some more, till they enter your consciousness and then refuse to leave. Sputnik Sweetheart is one such book for me. This one is definitely another.

Tomb of Sand on the surface seems like a book with a very simple plot-line. A mother of a family and her relationship with a transgender person, in the wake of her husband’s death. This causes some kind of confusion in her daughter who always thought of herself to be more progressive of the two. However, let this plot not fool you. This could very well be a book without a plot for the first two-hundred pages or so, and honestly it wouldn’t matter to the reader or deter the reading experience.

Tomb of Sand is so much more than just a story of a family or of a woman trying to come to terms with the past and the present as it shapes itself around her. Tomb of Sand is a book about families, about life lived in-between contemplating how to live it and the parts that you so want to live but cannot, and more than anything, it was for me – a novel about redemption, about so many what ifs, about the choices we make – intentionally and unintentionally, about empty spaces we choose to fill and sometimes the void is even more glaring than it was, and it is a novel about boundaries, about how we limit ourselves through identity and gender, about how we are much more than we give ourselves credit for.

Geetanjali Shree experiments with language, makes it her own, makes it fall flat on its head, and doesn’t bother with the rules of grammar. She makes her own rules as she goes along. I say this after also having read major portions of the book in Hindi as well. The translation by Daisy Rockwell is a different book – a unique entity, if I were to call it that. Daisy takes the book in Hindi and gives its English readers a new landscape to imagine and embrace. I do not mean the translation doesn’t do justice to the original, in fact, if anything it takes the playfulness of Hindi – makes it more than palpable to English and doesn’t transpose or transliterate, just for it to sound right, but gives it its own vocabulary, adding if I may call it the “Rockwell Touch”.  Her translation doesn’t miss a beat. It is lucid, clear, and gives the reader what they need, and also what they thought they didn’t need.

Tomb of Sand also seems like a rather simple novel, which again it isn’t. I do not mean only when it comes to structure or who is the narrator, or what is happening but also language that I have spoken about earlier. There is a sense of calm to the choice of words – both in Hindi and English – which makes the novel so relatable. I think that the “Indianness” of the novel is what lends it the added layer of appeal. For instance, the entire angle of the mother staying with the daughter in the daughter’s house while the son has his own family is something not permissible in an Indian household. The mother has to stay with the son. Shree breaks this mould and presents a new way of life. Rockwell takes that new way of life and brings to life the conversations between the two women (of course from the original) – without discussing a man – they discuss their bowel movements, they discuss childhood, life, what the mother thinks, what Beti feels, but not a man. This is perhaps intentional but does the job of meeting the Bechdel test than most other novels and movies.

Another instance that intrigued me the most was the class difference and the way Shree has highlighted it throughout the book. Domestic help have names attached – full names and personalities – from what they do to who they are and their role in the family. On the other hand, the members of the household are not known by names, except for one son called Sid. The rest are nameless, known by their roles and what they add to the plot.

Tomb of Sand also becomes a partition novel somewhere after four-hundred pages, and it didn’t surprise me at all, when that happened. I was so immersed in the world created by Shree and her magnificence, that I submitted myself more than happily to this plot-twist, if I can call it that. This again makes the novel even more profound and complex.

Tomb of Sand is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022. I hope it wins. I hope it is known widely. I hope because of this other Indian language books get their place in the sun. Tomb of Sand is a delight to read and reread. If you have already read it, I recommend you go back to it. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Please read it. NOW.

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 19 of 2022. Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump.

Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga

Title: Igifu
Author: Scholastique Mukasonga Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Publisher: Archipelago Books
ISBN: 978-1939810786
Genre: Short Stories, Translations, Women’s Writing
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I read this slim collection of most autobiographical short stories in one sitting. There was no way that I would take a break. I was left wondering though about how a writer integrates national horror in their literature. How does an act of terror shape literature and at the end how does it impact the reader?

Scholastique’s collection of short stories, Igifu, is centred on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Tutsi Rwandans were massacred by their Hutu compatriots. 37 members of Mukasonga’s family were killed. She had to leave Rwanda earlier, and eventually settle in France. This atrocity has found its way in all of her works – fiction and nonfiction.

This collection of short stories translated from the French by Jordan Stump is no different. Stump’s translation is deep-rooted in understanding the Tutsi people, their loss, their trauma, and how to appropriately put it on paper. Each time you read these stories, you read it not with fascination or exoticism but with empathy and compassion.

These five heartrending stories not only capture the ordeal of the Tutsis, but also speaks of roots and family and what it means to live with a grief so immense that you cannot even name it.

Igifu means hunger and each story somehow depicts that. The hunger not only for food but also for the homeland from which you had to escape. The title story is that of a child who becomes so weak from hunger that she passes out, and what the parents do next to keep her alive.

“The Glorious Cow” is about Tutsis and their relationship with their animals. It is about a way of life that is no longer present, and Mukasonga tells these stories the way it is – the only way you can by talking about life and what happened through fictional undertones.

“Grief” is a story that is most autobiographical in nature. It is about a young Rwandan woman living in France, who receives a letter containing a long list of relatives who died in the genocide. She cannot cry till she does at the funeral of a stranger.

Mukasonga’s writing leaves you with a sense of loss that is universal but somehow the one that cannot be comprehended by all. We can only imagine, sometimes we cannot even do that. As a reader, all I could do was understand, learn, unlearn, and be left with a sense of empathy and appreciation as to how Mukasonga writes through it all – with great tenacity and resilience.

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.