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review 2013-12-17 18:18
Lost in the woods
In the Woods - Tana French

It's been a while since I have read a book that has left me so utterly devastated, a book entailing such a profound emotional investment that having finished it I feel a gaping emptiness within, a sense of loss. It feels like my heart has been simultaneously crushed into pulp under the weight of the tragedies that descend on the lives of a handful of characters and blown to smithereens. And I would never be able to pick up the pieces and glue them back together into a throbbing whole again.

I read In the Woods while on vacation, whenever I took breaks from watching wave after wave crash on to the shore with the familiar rip-roaring intensity of the sea. I read this even when I was too tired to stay up till late, lying on an unfamiliar bed with a sheet of dubious hygiene standards. I read this during prolonged car rides. And every time I had to tear my eyes away from its pages, I felt a pang of irritation.

As I made my way toward the bone-chilling climax of this narrative, awake at an unholy hour, I distinctly remember breaking out in a sweat on a cool December night to boot. Sleep became an alien entity and, come hell or high water, I knew I would not wrench myself away from this fantastic make-believe world of a small town and the sinister occurrences that tied the lives of its residents in the most twisted way possible. I longed to stay trapped in the eerie magic spell cast by the woods, under the ominous shadows of leafy canopies of pine and beech, caught up in a hazy daydream playing hide and seek with Peter, Jamie and Adam. My heart ached for the two children who never returned home from their beloved woods, who were never found again and the way the tragedy of their mystifying disappearance dealt a crushing blow to the life of their traumatized playmate who returned unharmed. It wept for Rob and Cassie and their missed chances at happiness.

This book isn't about crime and punishment, it isn't about the science of deduction or smooth-talking, fedora-sporting detectives smartly arriving at inference after inference and nabbing the culprit in style. I almost crave for the standardized simplicity of regular crime thrillers at this moment, the stories which conveniently compartmentalize the crime and the police procedure, the good guys and the bad guys. At least a book like that would not have left me feeling so desolate and bereft of any happy feeling. 

But this book took my breath away with its ability to instill so much life in each one of its characters that their distress became my own, with its ornate but never ostentatious prose and the way it deftly narrated a story infused with the dull shades of a sadness so affecting. Tana French foregoes all the spick and span categorizations here, thumbs her nose at the usual pigeon-holing. Instead with consummate skill, she outlines the faint traces of humanity in the most brutal impulses, acknowledges the messed up ways in which this bizarre drama of life plays out and how a neat tying up of all loose ends seldom happens in reality. Sometimes, life is that merciless and cold. 

This book is about the labyrinthine pathways of our mind which treacherously conceal our most terrifying memories and how our subconscious prods us to replace the unpleasant truths with self-justifying falsities and even establishes our faith in them. It is about the seemingly innocuous, small cruelties of mundane everyday life that are capable of triggering much bigger disasters that destroy the lives of children and the unforgivable cruelties oblivious, ignorant children are themselves capable of.

I refuse to label this electrifying debut novel mere crime fiction because, in all earnestness, it is not. Rather, it is literature which delves deep into the causality of crime and meticulously brings out the humanity of all the people involved, literature capable of wringing out empathy from even the least sensitive reader. And it is an exploration of the convoluted workings of the human mind, of evil and barbaric urges lurking somewhere in its darkest nooks and crevices. It is a cerebral suspense thriller and, without a doubt, one of the best I have ever read. But it is also a beautiful, bittersweet story about people who carry on with their broken lives shouldering the unbearable burden of past trauma, an unforgettable human drama which left me emotionally drained, agitated to the extreme and yet gasping for more.

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review 2013-12-11 08:31
The Past in the Present
The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri
"It was as if Udayan were there, speaking to him, teasing him. He felt their loyalty to one another, their affection, stretched halfway across the world. Stretched perhaps to the breaking point by all that now stood between them, but at the same time refusing to break."


You don't have to be in a certain place, at a certain time to be able to catch the faint thrum of the lifeblood coursing through the pages of this book, live the heartbreak of its characters, to develop a sense of solidarity with their loss and desperation, to gaze at the spectacle of their unravelling fates across continents. But it will help if you have lived, at some point in time, in a city christened Calcutta by the British and rechristened Kolkata (the pure Bengali name) centuries later by a government intent on erasing telling signs of a nation's unfortunate colonial past. It will help if you have ever felt rudderless, adrift in a sea of anonymous human faces, unable to come to terms with a painful event, its aftermath too profound and terrible for you to grasp at once. It will help if you are carrying on with a half-life thousands of miles away from the land of your birth, toeing the line of divide between two distinct yet similar worlds. 

I have lived near Tollygunge all my life - a sort of an overlapping region between the place where I spent the earliest years of my childhood and the place where I grew into a young woman. Every time I arrive at the beginning of Tollygunge Circular Road from another portion of the city, I know with a comforting certainty that I am close to home, close to the assurance of rest and a meal, close to where my loved ones await my return as yet another day reaches its inevitable end. And Ms Lahiri has brought my humble, modest, familiar Tollygunge to life. Reminded me that my decrepit and majestic city has been witness to the rise and decline of too many political regimes, to the bloodletting during senseless communal riots and a terrible famine manufactured by a colonial administration too busy fighting a world war. That my city has been living for centuries before I was born, like a mythical, gargantuan beast and that it would continue to throb with life and activity years after I am gone. How silly is it that in the eagerness to match steps with the developed world, to achieve set targets, we forget the blood-soaked, tear-streaked history of the country we live in, that we are inextricably bound to the political upheavals which serve as foundation stones to our present state of equanimity, to the sheer tragedy and violence of turbulent times.

Neither am I Jhumpa Lahiri's biggest fan nor her harshest critic. My reaction to her writing has been very subdued so far. In addition, Ms Lahiri never seems to accomplish anything else other than rehashing the same old themes of nostalgia, the very cliched search for identity and the familiar rigmarole in novels recounting the immigrant experience. But with The Lowland, she has achieved something monumental, managed to rekindle an extinguished flame within me. Perhaps her achievement lies in an accurate enactment of that unmistakable sensation of being anchored to a place and a way of life, of being pulled towards a powerful centre. Whatever the case maybe, my past resentment about her 'undeserved' Pulitzer win is now gone as if it never was. 

It's like she has reached out to me from across the shores of the Pacific, held my hand and gently propelled me towards a life-like portrait of Calcutta, my Kolkata, the maddening, mystifying, glorious and ugly city of my birth which will remain as beloved to me by any other name, towards the people who inhabit its upscale townships and dingy shanties, towards the unknown stories of hardship and triumph which breathe life into this jungle of steel, brick and mortar, towards the struggles of an ill-fated generation now forgotten in the mad dash for globalization, towards a culture which has molded me into what I am today. It felt like looking into a mirror after a prolonged gap and spotting something hitherto undetected in that reflection. It felt like remembering something important.

I won't go into the subject of Udayan's misguided idealism and the havoc it wreaked in the lives of his loved ones. I won't elaborate on how Subhash ended up living a proxy life, responsibly stepping up to assume all the roles designated for his brother. I will not retrace Gauri's path to self-discovery and emancipation from the assigned identities of bereaved widow, dutiful daughter-in-law, mere wife and mother. And I certainly will not defend or condemn her refusal to let her life be defined by the flawed choices of the man she loved. 
Instead I would only leave you with a polite request to place your faith in the Booker committee's judgement and read this. Regardless of where you may have grown up - Rhode Island or Tollygunge - irrespective of whichever movement has left its indelible mark on the socio-political landscape of your nation -SDS or Naxalite agitation - Ms Lahiri will take you on a trip down memory lane, back to your roots, to the values that reside at your core and hold you together, to the people you have left behind somewhere in this long, befuddling journey of life but cannot ever forget. And she may remind you of who you used to be once and what you are now.

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review 2013-12-02 10:02
The Not-So-Secret History
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things - naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world."


Oh this vile bunch of snot-nosed college brats, fattened on their parents' money like ticks on blood. Oh their ennui and way of seeking solace in esoteric practices believing them to be the one-way ticket to some metaphysical dimension which will exclude us mere working class mortals with our worldly woes from entering and interfering with whatever unearthly pursuits they busy themselves with. Well guess what kids? We would like to be rid of over-confident, smug, self-important, world-weary bastards like you too. I almost wish I could go on a mad rampage during an eye-roll inducing, unbelievably ridiculous Dionysian rite and kill every single one of you as well.

The Secret History is one of the best crime thrillers I have ever read. And this is perhaps because this is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense of the term but literary fiction with moral ambiguity and loss of innocence as central themes. The actual crime(s) is a minor part of the narrative and doesn't eclipse the gradual build up to it or the domino effect it triggers subtly, a devastating chain reaction which results in the collective crumbling of the fabric of 5 young lives. And it is the shadow of this crime, the anticipation of its occurrence and the crushing psychological aftermath of it that lends the narrative its true substance. A discrepancy between the occasional sting of conscience felt by the perpetrators of the crime and their previous heinously selfish justification of the act of murder is what makes this book so utterly engrossing and a veritable unputdownable. Because here we aren't dealing with the solution of a complicated police case but instead getting acquainted with a thread of events which also happen to include a murder from the narrator's point of view who is a reluctant accomplice to the crime. 

But then why the conflicted 3-star rating? That's because I foresaw every unimaginative turning point or cliched plot device thrown in for the sake of heightening the drama. A third of the way into the narrative, with the grand revelation (which is not very grand to be honest), the unravelling of the rest of the story becomes very guessable. This is not to mention the'Argentum' fallacy which Manny has pointed out in his review already. Any attentive reader who has a grasp of high school level basic chemistry will realize that 'Aurum' refers to gold,'Argentum' refers to silver. But these aren't even the major irritants. My biggest problem is with the ludicrous contrivances that are passed off in the name of a premise for the story to build itself on. There's a tinge of unreality to the idea of a super close knit fraternity of 5 snobbish students of classical Greek in a college in 80s Vermont mentored by an even more snobbish and elitist professor, the narrator conveniently finding an entry into this brotherhood sort of grouping out of the blue and becoming a passive spectator to the sequence of events which follow. And lastly the main characters are hardly believable, especially the sole female character who remains a vaguely outlined one at best. 

The 3 stars are for Tartt's writing which is never showy or deliberate but graceful and quite excellent. I hope The Goldfinch is more impressive and free of proof-reading errors.

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review 2013-11-17 07:44
The summer of her awakening
The Summer Before the Dark - Doris Lessing

Before it all slips away from my feeble psychological grasp, before the after-effects start wearing off, let me write it all out. About the summer before the dark.

The first thing that struck me while reading was this - Fuck purple prose. Or red or maroon or magenta prose for that matter. (And I say this in full acknowledgement of the fact that my prose is often closer to purple than any other color.) Screw post-modernism and its deliberate way of being obtuse, obscure, snarky. Screw all that.

Because this is it. This is what I want to achieve if I were to attempt writing a stream of consciousness novel some day. This laying bare of all the everyday inner battles a woman wages with her conscience, with society, with those hunters lined up on the sidewalk eyeing her with the interest of a sexual predator as she walks home in that form-fitting dress. Delving this deep into the psyche of a human being who navigates the space of a few months rapidly changing disguises never knowing which of them are closer to her real self, but in prose so beautifully self-evident. The things nobody in the world is bothered about because all of it is so awfully pedestrian. After all, there's nothing remotely tantalizing about an upper class woman having perfunctory sex in a passionless affair or caring for her husband, her children, molding her existence around their schedules. There's barely any appreciation for what she is doing for society at large by playing the forever-at-your-service comfort-giver. The way she is working a thankless job, drifting through life mostly invisible in the eyes of the ones who surround her. 

This is how Virginia Woolf would have written if she had been alive right now. Because Mrs Kate Brown is nothing but a slightly modified modern day avatar of Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs Ramsay. Her insecurities about her steadily whitening hair and declining sex appeal maybe belittled as a rich white woman's first world problems but pay a little attention to them and you will see how universal and all-encompassing her gripe with patriarchy is. 

 

"She marries because to get married young is to prove herself; and then it must be as if she has inside her an organ capable of absorbing and giving off thousands of watts of Love, Attention, Flattery, and this organ has been working at full capacity, but she can't switch the thing off."


This is what I can only hope to do some day. Make my words bite, sting and burn those who read them. Force them to ponder upon devoured words for extended periods of time.

But does it really deserve 5 stars? Perhaps not, especially in light of the portions where the narrative loses sight of its destination in one of its countless meanderings and gives us the impression that we are trapped in the quagmire of Kate's own inner chaos. But then I am already in awe of Doris Lessing's voice and its power, her way of systematically eviscerating an unequal partnership where the husband is somehow in command of his own life but the wife isn't, her way of cutting open and dissecting motherhood, magnifying each one of its ignored, glossed over aspects for us to see clearly. I love the way this perfectly ordinary Kate Brown with her ordinary name gets under my skin and burrows through my insides, making me so deeply uncomfortable, coercing me into reconsidering my view of the women I have known closely over the years. 

How elegantly she bridges the gap between the inner and outer worlds of an individual and yet in the simplest of manners! And that, for me, is a 5-star achievement. 

Disclaimer:- Put down your pitchforks, po-mo & purple prose lovers. I wasn't really being serious in that second paragraph. I love my share of po-mo fiction and purple prose almost as much as you guys do.

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review 2013-11-10 06:24
To the lighthouse with Virginia
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

Oh Virginia! How is it that you make your words spring to life from the barren pages and hit my senses with the force of a gale every time? How is it that you peel off the layers of the banal and reveal the terrible beauty of the core? How is it that you steer my consciousness so deep into the murky waters of uncharted territory that resurfacing takes a toll on my strength?

I wonder what spirit possessed you every time you picked up your pen, brimming over with confidence or maybe unsure of your own craft, to pour every ounce of what weighed on your mind fluidly into the empty pages waiting in anticipation. I wonder if you heard the voices of decades lost in the spiral of time whispering into your ears the truest wisdom of all, as you sat at a desk in a room of your own, pursuing the tail end of some stray thought. I wonder if you ever realized the worth of what you wrote or the gift you have left for generations to cherish after your bones and flesh have been turned to dust and returned to where they rose from. 

I wonder if I have ever known a woman like Mrs Ramsay in person - been enamored of her ethereal beauty and grudgingly admired her command over the hearts of those who lived in her shadow and the way she let go of that same command as and when her whimsies deemed fit. I wonder if nearly every marital bond ever forged between two individuals has been or is a replication of the interplay of words and emotions, spoken and unspoken, between the Ramsays. I wonder if Lily Briscoe is truly a personification of the unified spirit of the man and the woman, their dichotomies conjoining imperfectly in the splotches of color she dabs on to her empty canvasses.

I strive to make sense of the lighthouse and what it illuminates in a rare moment facilitating cognition, when my eyes have become well-adjusted to the darkness. I don't get the purpose of its existence but I do. I see the lighthouse, hazy and sprayed white by the sea imprisoning it on all sides, standing tall in all its majestic grandeur merging with the horizon, out of my reach and I wonder how it looms so large yet recedes into the distance as a mute, inanimate witness to the play acts of life. I see it as I turn the pages, sometimes not understanding what it is that Virginia wants me to grasp and sometimes struck speechless by the impact of a realization in an instant of profound lucidity.

No other book has rendered me so completely helpless in my measly efforts to encapsulate its essence. No other book has required of me such prolonged contemplation. 
Think of the usual quota of trite responses to a question like"How're you?". Think of the quick "I'm fine" or "I'm well, how are you?" that comes without a moment's delay and how untrue and inadequate either response is each time. If somebody asks me to pronounce judgement on TTL, I'd perhaps respond with an equally predictable 'It is the best book I have read yet' and realize instantly how vapid and insincere this answer is, how silly it is to call this Woolf creation merely a "best book".

Currents of erratic thoughts, many of them contradictory in nature, are zipping past each other inside my head this moment and I am unable to articulate into words the fact of their individual existence as I open my mouth or let my fingers move over this keyboard. That is what attempting to dissect To the Lighthouse feels like. Irrespective of what I write or attempt to write, it is sure to be of little significance and ineffective in giving anyone even a teeny glimpse of what Virginia succeeds in capturing so flawlessly.

Sights and sounds and smells and emotions - strong, subtle, indescribable. The ephemeral quality of an instant when a man and a woman watch their little girl play with a ball, a rare moment in time when each of their individual actions and thoughts are somehow in perfect harmony. The resolute constancy of life and it's cautious but sure-footed tread on the newer ground of change and our bittersweet relationship with this change. A melding together of past, present and future in a blur of color and meaning. All of this and much more. A pure cerebral extravaganza, a celebration of the collective spirit of our existence on this ugly and beautiful world of ours, an acknowledgement of both pain and joy. That is what I think it is. 

I dream of going to the lighthouse one day like James, I dream of letting it guide my progress in the lightless, labyrinthine pathways into the heart and soul of this narrative once again. I dream of not allowing any sentence, any word to whiz past me uncomprehended when I read this again some day. 
Till then I only delight in swaying to the rhythm of her words, in her immortal lyrics in the song of life.

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