Saturday, June 28, 2014

A suitable book

"No one ever talks to anyone in our family, we just exchange brilliances."
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, is a terrific book, with sympathetic characters and set during a fascinating historical period. At about 2000 pages, it took me a little less than six months to read (while life went on, and yes, I've been reading other books during that whole time).
She was used to rereading her letters a dozen times, examining for days from every possible angle some remark that someone had made to someone else about something that someone had though that someone had almost done.

Mostly it's a story about Lata, and her family's attempts to find her a suitable boy to marry. Much of the rest of the time it's about her extended family and their acquaintances. And all these domestic scenes — romantic troubles, and financial worries, and career choices — are interspersed with chronicles of the legal and procedural difficulties of recently independent, post-Partition India.

In this way it's similar in structure to War and Peace. And yes, I did skim through some of the technicalities regarding land ownwership, just as I'd skimmed through some of Tolstoy's battlefield descriptions. Not because they're not interesting. But at some point it's too much, it becomes numbing.

But, never mind. This is a minor quibble. Because mostly, until it's too much, it's very interesting.

The physical and emotional centre of War and Peace, I always felt, is Natasha's dance, where she assumes her Russianness. Also the hunt scene, the connection to the land on which Russia is built. I find it interesting that similar scenes should occur in A Suitable Boy. There is a dance, only it's a tango; Lata throws off some of her Indianness to embrace modernity. Arguably she remains of a traditional mindset, but I think this scenes sees her come into her own, be in herself. The wolf hunt has none of Tolstoy's majesty; it's pathetic, but also significant in terms of the people's relationship to the land.

Seth's writing is simply lovely.
Mrs. Rupa Mehra was confirmed in her opinion that Meenakshi was extremely odd. To steel yourself against mangoes showed a degree of iciness that was almost inhuman.
It's funny and emotional. There's music and Shakespeare, love and death, shoe factories and Hindu festivals.
It's as if he didn't exist, thought Maan — as if he's in purdah. I've heard of him but I've never seen Him — like the women of the family. I suppose they exist as well. Or perhaps they don't. Perhaps all women are just a rumour.
Jo Walton wrote a great review on, and made this interesting observation:
Seth is writing for an anglophone audience but he doesn't hold your hand and explain everything. Nor does he throw you in at the deep end to sink. There's a very well done structure of explanation that will feel very familiar to a science fiction reader. He sometimes explains things, but he doesn't keep on doing it, and he sometimes just gives enough context that you can work it out. The whole way he uses exposition and incluing is very smooth and very much like what we're used to in genre. India in 1950 isn't as unfamiliar a world as Arrakis or Annares, except where it's weirder and even less familiar.

Also cricket and literature ("He's just a writer, he knows nothing at all about literature."). And tragedy, personal and national. The political campaign trail. Family secrets. Near-murder.

It has a lot.
Along one wall of the bus, the following message was painted in a murderous scarlet" Do not travel when drunk or with a loaded gun. But it said nothing about goats, and there were several in the bus.
Several actual historical events are woven into the narrative, for example, the 1954 Kumbh Mela stampede as well as religious riots and various political goings-on.
Mahesh Kapoor did not know either the Hindi or the English names of the birds and flowers that surrounded him, but perhaps in his present state of mind he enjoyed the garden more truly for that. It was his only refuge, and a nameless, wordless one, with birdsong its only sound — and it was dominated, when he closed his eyes, by the least intellectualizable sense — that of scent.
I'm glad to have read it. Yet, I couldn't help wishing it was a little bit shorter. (I might've preferred to read in one intensely immersive burst, rather than pace it over an extended period for the sake of a readalong with others.) Still, I miss it, and I'll be looking for the sequel. Publication of A Suitable Girl is currently slated for 2016.


Bellezza said...

I got a little more than halfway through before the library said it was due, and report cards interferrred. But, I loved it, too. The many Indian children in my class have really taught me a lot about their culture, and I felt completely captivated by learning more in this novel. Seth's writiing is beautiful, and even if it is a bit wordy in some places,mi didn't find it overly tedious. Someday I'll finish it. Hopefully before his latest release in 2016. ;)

Isabella Kratynski said...

I hope you do finish it someday! It's worth it to see who Lata ends up with.

Stefanie said...

I've had this brick of a book on my shelf for years but can't bring myself to read it. Maybe I will get a copy for my kindle. I find I do better reading long books as ebooks because the chunkster factor is physically hidden.

Isabella Kratynski said...

I read the ebook, Stefanie. It's kind of nice not knowing how small a dent you've made, how far you still have to go.

I can't imagine lugging a physical copy around. I actually encouraged a friend to rip her copy in two to encourage portability (and she did, and it worked).