This is one of those books that I so wanted to like but simply couldn’t. A BBC crew filming a documentary in an experimental prison village in India promised drama and emotion in an interesting location. Instead we have stereotyped and cardboard protagonists, a group of indistinguishable prisoners trotting out their clichéd sad stories of injustice on demand and, despite every piece of landscape, clothing and food being described in minute and sometimes florid detail, absolutely no sense of place.
‘She could hear the hysteric sound of the water pump, calling her with the pleading sound of a trumpeting animal, curtailed after several pushes only to be started again.’
There are three in the film crew. Serena is the uncaring, unfeeling professional who is only interested in making the film dramatic and doesn’t care who gets hurt along the way. The presenter Nathan, macho chauvinist and egoist, could not possibly be any more stereotyped. Shallow, unlikeable and unconvincing as these two are though, they pale into insignificance beside our chief protagonist, Ray. Of Indian descent, she wants to fit into this culture she is visiting, but honestly I can’t imagine Ray fitting in anywhere successfully. Annoying, unprofessional, self-obsessed and very, very tedious, Ray is liked by no-one – neither villagers, nor colleagues, nor indeed me. At one point Serena says to her ‘You are one draining piece of work, you know that? Dealing with you is like walking through cement.’ I agree, but it made me wonder – if the author sees that her main protagonist is this annoying, why does she believe the reader will be able to empathise with her in any way? It’s not as if she is changed by her experiences; there’s no growth or character development which, had it happened, may have given the book the much-needed focus and point that it lacked.
‘She saw Serena inhale, her mouth around the filter of the cigarette. It seemed so sexual, this open space, closing in on the shaft of a cigarette.’
I haven’t bothered to mention the Indian characters because the author failed to give any of them a well-rounded and distinctive personality. They are ciphers – there merely to provide a hazy and undefined background for Ray to play out her internal angst against. The writing itself is technically proficient – i.e. grammatical – but the endless repeated descriptions ultimately convey nothing. Yes, they dress differently; yes, they’re not white (!); yes, they eat different food…but none of this gives any sense of what life is like for the villagers, what their thoughts and feelings might be. The text is littered with Hindu words without explanations; sometimes it’s possible to get the meaning from the context but not always. This doesn’t give a sense of place – just a sense of irritation.
‘M.R. TRADERS is written in large, statuesque white capitals against a scarlet headboard that crowns a stall crammed with jars of sweets, numpkin, and hanging supari strips.’
I really dislike slating a book, especially from a relatively new author (even if she was longlisted for the Booker for her first book), but although I’ve tried hard, I can’t find anything positive to say about this one except that plenty of other people seem to be finding it a much more enjoyable read than I, as you will see if you look at the reviews on Amazon. But unfortunately I can’t recommend it.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.