Book Reviews

INDIVIDUAL LIVES


Kiran Nagarkar is that rare writer who has nothing to prove except fidelity to his characters.



IF THE BILINGUAL AND VERSATILE Kiran Nagarkar is unique among Indian novelists, his novel Ravan and Eddie (1995) together with its new sequel, The Extras: Starring Ravan and Eddie (Fourth Estate, 476 pages, 499), demonstrates yet another reason why: his ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today...

[Read full essay in the March 2012 issue of Caravan]

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ALL THE KING'S MEN

Our world, in the imagination of postmodern novelists, is fragmented. Can  writers of Hari Kunzru’s calibre put it back together again?

AS A TEEN I WAS INFATUATED for a while with the inspirational American writer Richard Bach—not so much his multimillion-copy bestseller about how birds learn to fly, but more The Bridge Across Forever, in which the author meets his soulmate-to-be. To test their love, he sells his Florida home and she turns her back on Hollywood. The two camp out in a trailer in the Mojave desert—a blank, featureless background from which the occasional rattlesnake glides out. Leslie and Dick spend time flying their sailplanes, working on their egos and coming around to accepting the ‘made for each other’ conclusion...

[Read the full essay in The Caravan, November, 2011]

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CIVILISATION OF LUGGAGE

Arvind Adiga's Last Man in Tower


Real estate blues play out in old-world Bombay in Aravind Adiga's second novel


Aravind Adiga's new novel is set in exactly the kind of middle-class hell that one might turn to novels to escape. The residents of an old housing society near Bombay’s Santa Cruz airport suffer from all the expected middle-of-the-road woes and shortcomings—water shortages, lack of space and privacy, envy, penny-pinching, noisiness and nosiness.

[Read full review in The Caravan, July 2011]


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SUPERHUMANS AND STANDARD GODS


Samit Basu's Turbulence

Ashok Banker's Krishna Coriolis


What do two recent popular novels say about our vision of the transcendental?


Samit Basu's Turbulence is that customer-friendly thing—a racy read. Several hundred passengers on a flight from London to Delhi are suddenly endowed with superpowers—they miraculously become what they’ve always wanted to be. Basu leaves out the backstory—not just the previous lives of these once-ordinary people, but also their transformation into airborne gods. He cuts straight to the action.


[Read full review in The Caravan, March 2011]


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YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION

Dilip Simeon's Revolution Highway


An inspired account of the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s


How best to write historical revolutions into fiction? Gustave Flaubert showed us one way in his grand 19th-century bildungsroman, Sentimental Education , in which events and ideas of great national significance are—seen through the novelist’s impartial eye—at par with private dreams about interior decoration. Protagonist Frederic and his friend Deslauriers are walking down a Parisian street, the latter declaiming nostalgically about one of the heroes of the French Revolution, Camille Desmoulins. Meanwhile Frederic, who has recently come into a large inheritance, is, unheeding of his friend, “looking at certain materials and articles of furniture in the shop-windows which would be suitable for his new residence.”


[Read full review in The Caravan, January 2011]


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THE AMERICAN DREAM 0.0

HM Naqvi's Home Boy

Tania James' Atlas of Unknowns

Rahul Mehta's Quarantine


Three books with three substantially different takes on post-9/11 New York


What, exactly—“right here, right now, today, in the twenty-first century US of A,” as the rap song goes in HM Naqvi’s Home Boy—is the American Dream?

Tania James offers us one version of it early in her novel—a display, for those deep in Kerala’s backwaters, of America’s desirability. Melvin Vallara, trying to explain to his daughter, Linno, why America is self-evidently good, remembers his friend Eastern Bobby who migrated to Normal, Illinois, and on a trip back home nailed a white mundu to a wall and projected a home video featuring the contents of his American fridge: “a giant jug of milk, a blue carton of twelve perfect eggs, a brick of yellow cheese, and a box with several sticks of butter. In the freezer: a slab of steak and a whole chicken, beheaded and plucked, sitting upright like the guest of honour.” This, in the minds of James’ characters, is America.


[Read full review The Caravan, September 2010]


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THE OUTSIDER

Upamanyu Chatterjee's Way to Go


Rediscovering one of the original heroes of Indian English fiction


In Upamanyu Chatterjee's
1993 novel, The Last Burden, the 20-something Jamun recalls a Faustian moment: he had once offered to take care of his parents until their death if they made over all their money to him. His father, Shyamanand, dismisses the idea, so Jamun says gravely, “Even when I urgently need money, I shall not thumb yours. When you  feverishly need me, I won’t be within reach.”


[Read full review The Caravan, June 2010]

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THE SYMPATHETIC IRONIST

Eunice de Souza's Necklace of Skulls


A richly rewarding collection with a few blank pages


Late in her A Necklace of Skulls, Eunice de Souza says, “We push so much under the carpet—/ the carpet’s now a landscape/ A worm embedded in each tuft/ There’s a forest moving.” We’re almost a hundred pages in so can at this point say with confidence that de Souza’s poetry has a great deal to do with this metaphorical, infested carpet.


[Read full review in The Caravan, April 2010]


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CRACKING THE FROZEN SEA

JM Coetzee's Summertime


A sombre and subversive fictional memoir from one of the most accomplished writers of our time.


Do you really believe that books give meaning to our lives, John Coetzee asks his lover Julia in Summertime. “A book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us,” says Julia, paraphrasing Franz Kafka. The question Summertime asks but does not answer is: what if it is the novelist’s heart that is the frozen sea? Is it possible then to still hold to Kafka’s view about the power of fiction?


[Read full review in the The Caravan, January 2010]


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OF YARNS AND YEARNING

Parismita Singh's The Hotel at the End of the World

 

Once while on the island of Majuli on the Brahmaputra, with the mist rising and slender canoes laden with earthen pots sailing past with regal slowness, I found myself in a forlorn dhaba at lunchtime. There seemed to be nothing for miles around except this rickety shack, with its walls of weather-beaten, plaited bamboo strips, and the great sea of the river. “Will you make us some omelettes?” said my companion to the boy who had been asleep on a bench. The boy looked at us with great weariness and finally answered, as if sharing classified information, “For omelettes you need eggs.”

[Read full review in Biblio, Sept-Oct, 2009


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WALKING THE WORLD

Junot Diaz's Drown
 
Diaspora narratives tend to be double mirrors. Thrown into relief against foreign backgrounds, characters become self-aware in new ways – they start watching themselves and we watch them watching themselves. Via writers like Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai, one has come to think of this as a necessary, if sometimes wearying, self-consciousness, but Junot Diaz’s American stories about Dominicans show that it is dispensable. None of his characters ever tries to encapsulate North America or his life in it. Diaz avoids all philosophising about identity and instead conveys everything through the grittier material of first-hand experience – the experience of people always learning to “walk the world”.