Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

I have never been a fan of ghost stories and I started to read The Little Stranger for two reasons only. One because it is on the Booker Prize shortlist for 2009 and secondly because until now, all of Waters’s books have had gay and lesbian themes and I thought a shift from gay/lesbianism to ghosts sounded very interesting, if not challenging. To be honest, Waters had already started drifting away from gay and lesbian themes in her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which preceded The Little Stranger and is set in the 1940s. Like all her other novels, The Little Stranger is a ‘period story’ and is set in the period just after the Second World War. Though a ghost story, The Little Stranger is as much about English society after the War and the changes to the English class system, as it is about ghosts.

Using a GP as her narrator, Waters’ tells us the story of the Ayreses who live in the Hundreds Hall in rural Warwickshire. At one point, the Ayreses had wealth and social standing. When the story begins, they only have the latter and we see Roderick, the only male left in the Ayres family struggle with his bills as well as his war wounds. Roddy’s sister Caroline, an intelligent, but plain girl, does a substantial amount of manual work in the farm and in the household. The mother Mrs. Ayres has seen much better days and would like to keep up appearances.

Dr. Faraday the narrator is a middle-aged doctor who comes from red-blooded working class stock – his mother was a maid at the Hundreds Hall many years ago. In fact, Dr. Faraday has been to Hundreds Hall as a kid for an Empire Day function, when he was allowed into the big house as a treat. Dr. Faraday is now a GP who has not done spectacularly well for himself. He is called out to Hundreds to treat the maid Betty who has started working there very recently. Betty is faking a tummy ache and Faraday latches on, though he doesn’t snitch on her. That there is something very wrong with Hundreds Hall becomes apparent very early on, though Waters takes her time to build up the tempo before she makes it clear that the place is haunted.

Waters also takes her time in telling her readers officially that there is a spark between Dr. Faraday and Caroline, though most readers will start wondering very early on why Dr. Faraday doesn’t woo Caroline when he admires her so much. It is only when one reaches the halfway mark of this 500 page tome that one see Dr. Faraday and Caroline make the moves. Even after the spark is officially lit, it flickers and even disappears for certain stretches, despite all around approval for the match.

Even though ghost stories don’t appeal to me, I really enjoyed The Little Stranger, mainly because Waters devotes a considerable amount of effort and space in building up the atmosphere and the characters. It’s not just the main characters (who are few in number) who sound and smell authentic. Even the peripheral ones come across as genuine 1940s vintage.

Whilst telling us the story of a possible ghost, Waters tackles a host of social issues ranging from landowners’ resentment towards Atlee’s Labour government, the introduction of the National Health Service, lack of social mobility (in those days) etc. For someone not familiar with post-war England, The Little Stranger is full of surprises. Food is rationed and even the well-off struggle to buy food. To buy clothes, you need clothes coupons. Dr. Faraday uses up all his coupons to buy a wedding dress for Caroline. Gas is rationed as well, though Dr. Faraday is able to drive everywhere he wants to, since he is a GP. One gathers that there was no law against drink driving in those days since Dr. Faraday gets puking drunk on more than one occasion and drives home without a care in the world.

Waters's story telling skill is so very good that my interest never flagged while reading this tome. After the Ghost’s presence was more or less confirmed (around Page 300 or so), Waters’ did get me to sit of the edge of my sofa for the rest of the book.

Does the romance between Dr. Faraday and Caroline come to a successful conclusion? Is the Ghost laid to a peaceful repose for eternity, as many ghost stories do? Does the Hundreds Hall regain its past glory? Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Little Stranger has been shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. Waters has been shortlisted for a Booker twice in the past. Though I am not sure if a ghost story has ever won the Booker Prize, there is a very good possibility that Waters will be third time lucky in 2009.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Book Review: The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

There are very few sane characters in The Quickening Maze. Charles Seymour is one. Locked up at the behest of his father at the High Beach Private Asylum, a lunatic asylum run by Doctor Mathew Allen who is relatively progressive for his time, Charles’ refusal to renounce his unsuitable lady love is the only thing that prevents him from being released. The intelligent and accomplished Doctor Allen, the father of three girls, is not so very sane himself. Despite having gone to prison in the past (on account of debt), Mathew goes ahead with a very reckless scheme for mass producing furniture using a steam-driven machine invented by him. Persuading friends and patients to invest in his venture, the energetic Dr. Allen makes much headway till he realises that his scheme will not work.

John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864), who was during his time known as the "the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet" is the leading character in this novel. Lord Alfred Tennyson also has an important role. Clare is mad. Tennyson isn’t, though his brother Septimus and many of his family members are. Clare is the son of a farm labourer with limited education, a man who is so used to living with nature that he finds it intolerable when he is locked up and cut off from forests and wildlife. Tennyson is not particularly concerned with nature. He is at the High Beach Private Asylum solely to take care of his brother Septimus. Tennyson ends up investing in Dr. Allen’s mad venture.

There are many more individuals in The Quickening Maze, many of whom are insane and a few of whom like Dr. Allen’s wife, daughters and helpers are very much sane. All of them have their characters built up and described in very beautiful prose that is very economical and judicious with its use of words. Epping Forest on the outskirts of London, within which the High Beach Private Asylum is located, is one of those characters brought to life by Foulds. Since Foulds is a splendid poet who won the Costa Poetry Award in 2008, The Quickening Maze definitely has a lyrical touch at all times. However, the poetic touch never goes overboard.

One of the things I didn’t like about the Quickening Maze is that it has many characters and Foulds switches from one to another at a breakneck speed, leaving the reader a bit bewildered and even insane at times. Maybe it’s intentional. Another feature I didn’t like is that Foulds does not tell his readers what happens to his various characters. We see Clare slipping into greater insanity, at times imagining himself to be a prize fighter, at times to be Lord Byron. Is there any escape for Clare? We won’t know from this novel. What happens to Alfred Tennyson? Hannah, one of Dr. Allen’s daughters, has an innocent crush on Tennyson and pines away for him. Does she succeed? The reader never finds out. However, Foulds does tell us what happens to Charles Seymour, a man locked up so that he can be cured of his love. Do read this wonderful book to find out.

The Quickening Maze is Fould’s second novel. The first one, The Truth About These Strange Times, won the 2008 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award. The Quickening Maze has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009, which will be announced on 6 October 2009. In my opinion, this novel has a decent chance of winning the Booker.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Book Review: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

By the time I finished reading Simon Mawer’s Glass Room, not only was I conscious of having read a fine piece of literature, I was also convinced that Mawer is as good, if not better, than pulp fiction writers like Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham in packing mystery and suspense inside a novel. Before I say anything further, let me confess that I am big fan of fiction with a historical base. The Glass Room, set in Czechoslovakia from the period after the end of the First World War till the time when communism started to collapse in Eastern Europe, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I have ever read.

There are many characters in the Glass Room, but it would not be possible to point anyone as the most important person in the story. Viktor Landauer, a Jewish businessman who owns a motor car manufacturing business is definitely one of the main characters, as is his Gentile German wife Liesel. Viktor and Liesel commission a German architect, Rainer von Abt, to build their dream house on the land gifted to them by Liesel’s father as a wedding gift. Believing that ornamentation is a waste, if not a crime, the Glass Room is built as a tribute to modernism, without any ounce of ornamentation and as a symbol of a clean break with the past. The story revolves around the Glass Room throughout, even after the Laundeurs flee from the Nazis and escape to the United States through Switzerland.

The Nazis convert the Glass Room into a laboratory where experiments are carried out on human beings. Here’s a conversation between Stahl, a German doctor, who heads the team that carries out research on human specimens in the Glass Room and Hana, Liesel’s closest friend who has stayed on. Stahl is explaining how his daughter Erika contracted infantile amaurotic congenital idiocy when she was very young.

He sits there in the Glass Room among the trappings of scientific measurement, in the pure proportions of the place, and talks of irrationality and senselessness. ‘It’s to do with a chemical, a particular kind of fat that the body makes when it shouldn’t. It accumulates in the brain and somehow turns the nerve cells off, that’s what the specialists say. It’s what’s called an inborn error of metabolism. Inside me, inside every cell in my body there is this genetic mutation. Recessive. You need one from each parent before you have the disease.’
‘So Hedda had it too.’
‘Of course she did. The same mutation, running in our family, but brought together by our union.’ He pauses. ‘It’s one of the Jew diseases.’
‘A Jew disease? Is there such a thing?’
‘Jews particularly suffer from it, along with many other diseases of that kind. Degeneracy, you see. They are a degenerate people.’
‘And does having it make you a Jew?’
‘It doesn’t make me a Jew, but some Jew introduced the disease into the family four generations ago. A great-great-grandfather. That is what I believe.’
She comes over from the windows and stands beside the piano. ’And the baby? When was this? I mean, is the baby still_’
‘Do you know how such children die? Finally they lose the ability to swallow. You try to feed them but they just choke everything up. Either they starve to death or they die of pneumonia. There is nothing anyone can do. Nothing.’
‘And that’s what happened?’
‘No, that’s not what happened.’

After the Nazis are overthrown and the proletariat takes over, the Glass Room becomes a gymnasium. The original owners are never forgotten by Mawer and towards the end of the book, one gets to see them again. Not only that, many loose ends are tied up in the final thirty pages or so of this absolutely wonderful book. I wouldn’t want to say any more and spoil the fun for those who read this review.

There were a few bits I didn’t like, such as when Kata Katalin ends up in the Landauer residence, aka the Glass Room, after she becomes a refugee. However, such instances are very few and far in between and are within Mawer’s author’s licence.

To summarise, this is an absolutely brilliant book. There is suspense, there is violence, there is eroticism, there is history, all of which is tied together by Mawer’s brilliant writing. The Glass Room is one of the six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009 and is, in my view, a very strong contender for the trophy.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review: Summertime: Scenes from Provincial Life by J. M. Coetzee

Unlike a biography, an autobiography requires the author to analyse himself. The degree and nature of analysis determines how interesting the story will turns out to be. In M.K. Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth, the author sets out facts in a gentle and undulating manner, interspersing facts with explanations. There are admissions of failures and of mistakes made, of weak moments and errors of judgements. Unlike Gandhi, J.M.Coetze takes self analysis to an extreme in his latest book Summertime, a fictionalised autobiography and third in a trilogy which began with Boyhood and Youth. By using the services of one Vincent, a biographer who wants to hear all about Coetzee from various sources so that he can pen Coetzee’s tale, Summertime examines Coetzee’s adult life from various angles and paints a very unflattering picture of himself.

There are stories from Julia, a married woman with whom Coetzee had an affair, from Margot, a cousin whom Coetzee wanted to marry when he was young, Adriana, a Brazilian lady whose daughter took English lessons from Coetzee and from Martin and Sophie, two colleagues with whom Coetzee worked. In addition to these sources, there are extracts from Coetzee’s diaries. With tales from all these sources, as narrated to Vincent, Coetzee paints a self portrait that is so ruthless that you don’t even feel sorry for the author.

John Coetzee is shown as a misfit, always ill at ease, shy and reserved, without any friends, a man in need of a decent haircut. Despite all this, Coetzee does not come across as a man who deserves any sympathy, though he is shown as a loser, time and again. For example, with cousin Margot, Coetzee goes on a long drive across the veldt in his pickup truck and the engine conks off in the middle of nowhere. Coetzee and Margot are forced to spend the night inside the truck, hugging each other to keep themselves warm. This is the same Margot whom Coetzee hoped to marry when he was young. Margot doesn’t feel anything for Coetzee, though they are alone and hugging each other to sleep. It could be because Margot is happily married to someone else. However, in Margot’s own words, ‘why is there no male aura about him? Does the fault lie with him or on the contrary, does it lie with her, who has so wholeheartedly absorbed the taboo that she cannot think of him as a man? If he has no woman, is that because he has no feeling for women, and therefore women, herself included, respond by having no feeling for him? Is her cousin, if not a moffie, then a eunuch?

The reader knows that Coetzee has feelings for women, that he has had affairs before, that he still loves Margot. We know that he is not a moffie (a derogatory Afrikaans term for a gay man) or an enuch. No, Coetzee is just not man enough for Margot.

Time and again, Coetzee fails to make an impression on the people he meets, despite having very strong convictions and views on issues ranging from animal rights to vegetarianism to apartheid. Coetzee’s convictions and ideology make him stand out from the crowd at all times, however. For example, Coetzee believes that white South Africans ought to do manual labour rather than rely on hired black helpers. For this reason, he tries to maintain his pick-up truck himself, does all repairs to his house himself, learns Khoi, a Hottentot dialect which is not spoken by anyone else etc. None of these activities manage to win him brownie points with anyone except maybe his own father, who lives with him and is portrayed in an equally pathetic light.

I have been a Coetzee fan ever since I read Disgrace which won Coetzee a second Booker in 1999. Coetzee is one of two individuals who have won the Booker twice. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Summertime has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize which is to be announced on 6 October 2009. If Coetzee wins a Booker for Summertime, he will be the only author to have won a Booker three times.

I really enjoyed Summertime. Like his other books, it is dry, sparse, to the point and cruel. However, I doubt if it will win the Booker.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Book Review: My Friend Sancho

Amit Varma is a blogger I admire a lot. Like many tens of thousands of Indians, I get withdrawal symptoms if I can’t check his blog Indiauncut at least once every day. The symptoms are equally bad if Varma doesn’t update his blog daily. Of late, Varma hasn’t been posting as regularly as he once used to. The culprit behind this disaster is Varma’s debut novel My Friend Sancho (MFS), published by Hachette India. I happened to read MFS recently

More a novella than a novel (since by my own reckoning it doesn’t exceed 40,000 words), MFS is the story of an ambitious reporter (not unlike Varma who once used to be a journalist till he turned to full-time blogging) named Abir Ganguly who also happens to be an Indiauncut fan. Using a simple, but very realistic, plot and uncluttered English that gets to the nub of the matter without prevarication, Varma tells us a tale that has shades of Love Story in it. MFS is a very good read and Varma easily held my attention effortlessly for the entire journey.

Varma makes no bones about the fact that his only objective is to entertain and that he has no lofty literary pretensions. In the beginning of the book, Abir has a conversation with his boss, which goes on as follows:

“So what kind of stories do you want to write for us, young man?”
“You tell me, sir.”
“No, you tell me. I want to see what you want to do first.”
“Sir, um, I want to do the kind of stories that reveal, um, what this city is all about.”
“What is this city all about?”
“Sir, um, this city, sir, has, um, lots of struggle, and life is hard, and...”
“Enough. Do you watch movies?”
“Yes sir.”
“Do you watch sports?”
“Yes sir.”
“I'll tell you why. Because you want drama. Our lives are boring, so we want drama everywhere. That is why we gossip. That is why we peek into our neighbour's houses. That is why we watch movies, watch sports. That is why readers buy The Afternoon Mail. Drama! Now, I want you to understand one thing.”
“Yes sir.”
“Your job, as a reporter, is to find drama. People want story: conflict, love, action, violence, sadness, regret. Give them story. You know that old cliché of 'dog bites man' and 'man bites dog'? I want 'man bites dog'. Every story you write must be 'man bites dog'. Drama!”

Recently Varma posted an article giving blogging tips for aspiring bloggers. Value your reader’s time; Keep your English simple; Focus on the content rather than use ornamental language. These are some of Varma’s commandments. Varama is obviously one of those teachers who practice what they preach since MFS follows all these rules and is a lesson is English writing for all aspiring writers who are not native speakers of English.

However, the most outstanding feature of MFS is also its main drawback. Since Varma obviously believes that his reader’s time is very valuable and that readers are fickle creatures who will drop his book and wander away at the slightest slack in his writing and because Varma believes that his readers want pure unadulterated entertainment that doesn’t require the exercise of grey cells and nothing else, MFS is crammed with sarcasm, cynicism and WTFness that are so very familiar to Indiauncut readers. Such writing is, in my opinion, very much appropriate for blogging on the internet where readers have so many distractions and moving to a different web page is so very easy. However, when reading a book one has bought for a few hundred rupees, a reader can be expected to be a bit more faithful. At times I did find Varma’s attention grabbing tactics distracting. I believe that if Varma hadn’t been so worried about keeping his readers entertained by every word he wrote, if every word wasn’t expected to count, MFS would have been a much better read.

Another drawback (or flaw) in MFS is that Varma doesn’t do justice to Muneeza, Abir’s love interest in the story. Muneeza is shown as having had a traditional (Indian Muslim) upbringing, but displays streaks of rebellion and independence. If properly developed, Muneeza could have been a very interesting character. However, readers are given a hasty and one-dimensional view of Muneeza.

Varma’s writing can only get better, provided Varma stops worrying that his readers will run away if a single word in his work fails to entertain.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Book Review: Arzee the Dwarf

Chandrahas Choudhury is a very well-known blogger within Indian literary circles. His blog, The Middle Stage, is in my opinion, one of the finest literary blogs on the World Wide Web. Having followed the Middle Stage for the last few years, I was pretty sure that Choudhury’s debut novel would be very good. I turned out to be wrong. Arzee the Dwarf is not just very good, it is outstanding.

Published by Harper Collins, Arzee the Dwarf tells the story of a vertically challenged man for a few turbulent days of his life. Arzee works for a cinema, the old fashioned and moth eaten Noor as an assistant projectionist. One of Arzee’s dreams is to become the head projectionist, an event that is not so much out of reach since Phiroz, the head projectionist, is old and close to retirement. Another dream is to get married to an ordinary girl not afflicted with dwarfism. Using beautiful prose that is almost poetic and which pushes your imagination to stratospheric heights, without using a single redundant word, Choudhury floats Arzee to the peak of happiness and then drops him into a valley of despair before he brings out a banner of hope. Do Arzee’s dreams materialise?

Set almost entirely in Old Mumbai, in and around Breach Candy, Grant Road, Mumbai Central, Khar Road, Jogeshwari etc, a geography where Choudhury is entirely at home, Arzee the Dwarf makes its readers walk over rotting garbage, wade through dirty puddles, smell Arzee’s foul armpits and bad breath, all the while entranced by Choudhury’s golden yarn.

There are surprises galore. What is taken for granted by the reader is turned over and made to stand on its head, time and again. The linkages that lead from one significant development to another all almost entirely realistic and even where they are not, Choudhury is very much within his creative licence. One of the best things about Arzee the Dwarf is that each one of Choudhury’s main characters is out of the ordinary, eccentric even, but very, very real. Choudhury’s characterisation, in my opinion, takes Arzee the Dwarf close to magical realism.

If at all there can be any grievance about Arzee the Dwarf, it is that Choudhury could have told us more about some of his secondary characters, having piqued our curiosity sufficiently about them. For example, I would have liked to know more about Phiroz’s daughter or Arzee’s brother Mobin. However, Choudhury gets one so close and personal to Arzee and other main characters such as Deepak and Phiroz, that this drawback doesn’t register till a few hours after one has put down the book.

Arzee the Dwarf runs to around fifty five thousand words (by my own estimate). It is not only ‘unputdownable’, but also does something most books by Indian authors fail to do. It makes its reader smile frequently, even when the protagonist is not doing very well for himself. At times, the smile turns to a chuckle. But don’t worry, there is no danger of you laughing uproariously when reading this book.