This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…
There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).
But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.
The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.
The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.
I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.
In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”
** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…