I was recommended (and actually gifted) this book by a friend years ago. Like, so many years ago that it is quite embarrassing that it took me this long to read it, especially considering how much I read and how good of a friend the recommender is. However, I’m going with a “better late than never” outlook…and asking for a teeny bit of forgiveness from said friend.
As far as plot, I suppose it technically centers around the twins Rahel and Esthappen, who are seven-years-old and part of a reasonably well of family in India, when tragedy strikes their family in 1969. Although, for the most part, the story happens around them instead of to them (and by that I mean, as seven-year-olds, where does their agency start and how do you classify their decisions as theirs versus as a result of the machinations/communications of the adults around them?), they do play a very pivotal role in the events that change things for them, their relationship with each other, and their family, forever. These events also shine a light on many of the unsaid, but universally understood fundamental beliefs that, for better or worse, shape Indian society.
Alright, I am struggling with this review for a number of reasons. First, and most important, this is just one of those books that is so impressive in scope and so subtle in message that I feel like I am not smart enough to understand it all. And I do not day that with false modesty – I know a lot of things, many of which are because of how much I read. But every once in awhile I come across a book like this. One that is so precise in it’s language, where you can tell that each moment was crafted and delivered with such purpose, that if you do not read something deeper into almost every action, character or quote, that you are missing part of the greater picture into which you are supposed to be getting insight. There are metaphors layered on metaphors, political and social commentary of unbelievable meditative depth, that it seems almost impossible to catch it all. And I found myself feeling almost guilty that my knowledge of India, and the traditions, beliefs and politics in the country are not enough to fully appreciate this novel.
“History’s smell. Like old roses on a breeze. It would lurk forever in ordinary things. In coat hangers. Tomatoes. In the tar on roads. In certain colors. In the plates at a restaurant. In the absence of words. And the emptiness in eyes.”
In addition to that, the almost dreamlike quality of the writing, the details in the descriptions, that painted a picture so real you could literally almost touch, see, smell it, sometimes lost me. I occasionally found my attention drifting away from these exactitudes, even while I was objectively aware of and impressed with the level of competency from the author. There were parts of this that I loved, like the way the descriptions of the twins, Rahel and Estha, as Ambassadors E. Pelvis and S. Insect, with their beige and pointy shoes and fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo, build on each other and grew and repeated as the story progressed. Becoming deeper and tying in ever more moments and feelings as they went. I loved how this happened for many characters, and many moments, throughout. The cadence of that as a writing device was used to perfection and done with impressive control. But there were also parts that lost me, and my attention, is a dramatic way.
“But what was there to say?
Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.”
However, at the same time, even with the parts where I zoned out a little and the parts that I probably didn’t get/understand, this reading experience still hit me with all the power of a real literary tour de force. And that is not something to take lightly. The clear condemnation of the caste system, it’s rules about who/how you can love, the strict confines on how to live and love appropriately within social construct, and the, at times quite satirical, insights into how these social structures interacted with political principles was searing. And there was no way to miss that. I also felt like the simultaneous exploration of these themes from a wide-lens, societal view, alongside the more intimate look at how they play out in a single family structure, combined with the domestic (intra-country/internal) vs international (inter-country/external) views on these issues, are juggled skillfully. That’s a lot to weave together, and Roy does it flawlessly, while also taking the narrative back and forth in its’ timeline so that the reader, by the end, has no questions as to how this ending could possibly have come to be, and how the history of the world played together with individual decisions to create such a tragedy.
“If you’re happy in a dream, does that count?”
So, hopefully that helped flush out what I thought a little bit about? Haha. This is such a complex book that writing a straightforward review is pretty much impossible. I’m trying to think of a “takeaway” for the end that will kind of summarize things. This was profound, on so many levels. The commentary on Indian society is intricate and intelligent, the language is rhythmical and almost haunting (perfect for the story’s mood), the family saga is complicated and tragic (honestly, Rahel and Estha’s childhood emotional trauma is heartbreaking), and the forbidden love story that is the highly foreshadowed linchpin of this story’s central tragedy (despite the late-ness of its actual arrival to the plot), is worthy of the build-up. And, it must be mentioned, there is a very controversial scene between the twins at the end of the book that I’ve seen lots of commentary back and forth on. In order to not give anything away, I will just say that my opinion is that it fits the allegorical feel of the story – whether it’s “real” or not is less the point than what it represents for the twins and the greater context.
Although there were times that I was a bit adrift in the middle of this story, that does nothing to diminish my respect for what Roy has achieved here. This is just a gorgeously intellectual tale from an esteemed modern writer and activist.
**If you are nervous about reading it after this review (because I certainly would be), but you want to try it anyways (which I applaud…and do encourage) – I highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator was great and that keeps the plot moving forwards through those sticky spots without letting you stagnate in them. Do you ever use audiobooks in this way – listening to books you really want to read/know you should read, but have trouble working through in a traditional “reading” sense?