It has taken me a while to come around to writing this review. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance has left me at a complete loss of words to put my thoughts into. But it also wouldn’t be right to not say anything about this remarkable novel and its all too real portrayal of the human psyche and the ways in which it justifies its most atrocious tendencies – it is a masterpiece in every way imaginable.
A Fine Balance opens simply: uncle and nephew duo Ishvar and Omprakash Darji are headed to an unnamed but busy city for jobs; specifically, jobs from a Dina Dalal who is looking to hire skilled tailors. On the train, they meet Maneck Kohlah, who, unbeknownst to Ishvar and Om, is also on his way to Dina Dalal’s flat; his mother and Dina were old school friends and they have arranged for Maneck to rent a room in Dina’s flat so he doesn’t have to live in the rowdy student hostel. Over the course of the next year or so, the lives of these unlikely characters become inextricably and they change each other’s fate in the most gut-wrenching yet poetic way.
Set against the backdrop of the State of Emergency declared in India in 1975 under prime minister Indira Gandhi, A Fine Balance explores how the political environment of the country and the rampant violence and corruption during those 21 months affected the different socioeconomic classes of India at the time — depicted through Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om who come from strikingly different backgrounds and whose outlook of society varies by the injustices meted out to them. Mistry’s novel provides a very vivid glimpse of a highly controversial time in independent India’s history and as a passionate fan of historical fiction, reading this book has been as educational as it has been emotional.
A Fine Balance shines the brightest when, in describing the minutia of the lives of our four protagonists, it brings out the nuances of their characters and lays bare the methods in which humans go about strengthening their relationships with each other: with humour, food, trust and storytelling. Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om all have fascinatingly different stories to tell, of their past, of their trauma and of their standing in society and yet this is what brings them closer and closer together as the novel goes on. Mistry also focalises his narrative exceptionally well, outlining every character’s association with the society they inhabit and their understanding of its shortcomings with great subtlety.
Through these four characters, Mistry also explores the transience of life, gratitude for all it has to offer and regret for moments gone. The juxtaposition of their exhilaration and their despair that stems from deep-seated trauma gives further dimension to their characters, and makes their triumphs and losses feel almost personal. It is not an exaggeration when I say that the character development of this novel is one of the best I’ve come across; I know I will come back to Dina and her rag-tag gang and their unusual bond over and over again just to focus on the individual characters and their growth (or the lack of it) through 800 pages.
In a A Little Life-esque fashion, Mistry doesn’t shy away from elaborating on the grotesque details of the misogyny and casteism the characters face and the consequent impact of such unfathomable cruelty on their mental wellbeing. Admittedly, I found this to be rather emotionally exhausting and it took me several months to get through the middle sections of the novel — the book spent long stretches of time gathering dust on my nightstand before I could find the courage to continue reading. Don’t let this deter you from exploring Mistry’s heartbreaking Booker Prize shortlist though; its emotional depth is what grants it masterpiece status.
While I am not a fan of Mistry’s prose — verbose and difficult to pay attention to for long periods of time — The Independent lists A Fine Balance as one of the 12 best Indian novels that everyone needs to read, calling it ‘beautifully written’. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the way Mistry writes brings out the simplicity of his characters and the lives they lead better, or if his staccato style of writing takes impact away from the novel. In any case, Mistry has created a piece of work that will be a reflection of humans and our crooked society for many generations to come and for that he is a genius.
Life truly is a delicate balance of difficult emotions, experiences and relationships, and Mistry comes spectacularly close (and how!) to answering what it means to be human, wading through this journey, sometimes with purpose and sometimes without.
TW: This book mentions and describes abuse, depression, PTSD and suicide. Please read at your own discretion.
In 2017, a close friend coaxed me into watching an obscure period drama called Medici: Masters of Florence with her, citing its score and casting (of Richard Madden, to be precise) as reason enough. I begrudgingly agreed, purely out of my infatuation for period dramas, not knowing that it would spark an unhealthy and lengthy obsession with the Medici Family and their influence on epistemology and culture.
At the end of the final season (the last two are called Medici: The Magnificent, for those interested), I found myself seeking out books, essays, and frankly any written accounts of the Medici to fill in the gaps of information created by facts left out for the screen adaptation, because as much as I love a good dramatisation of a time long gone, I also like to bore people at parties with niche knowledge (who doesn’t?).
Having perused several short and poorly referenced books on the topic, I came across Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, and after an in-depth study and 50 page markers, I can finally state with confidence that I’ve found just the right book to learn about this family — the most well-rounded and detailed narration of a convoluted timeline and myriad people.
Strathern begins his chronicles of the Medici with Ardingo de’ Medici, the first in the family to become gonfaloniere (high civic magistrates of medieval Italian city-states) in 1296 and ends with Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who died in 1743, taking the Medici bloodline to the grave with her. In the 500 years in between, lived some of the greatest men who towered as godfathers of all they saw and liked and left a legacy whose impact we still see today, and some horrible men who brought incredible shame and tarnish upon the same legacy.
Apart from lending money, governing the Florentine Republic, and controlling trade across Italy, nearly every Medici generation also funded and inspired various facets of the Renaissance. While at the time they were famous (or infamous, depending on your interpretation of their reign), as a political and economic dynasty, today they are most famously known for their extensive patronage of the Renaissance and commission of works that formed the backbone of the movement.
The Medici had humble beginnings — known to be God-fearing men, they were extremely cautious in their financial dealings, for usury was a sin, and the likes of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici insisted on keeping a low profile at all times. This caution slowly moved to the backburner, when at the height of their greatness, political agenda and a desperate need to hold power in Florence came to the forefront for Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo Il Magnifico. It was at this stage that their patronage of the arts and the sciences flourished, a way to cover up for their growing sin counter, thereby permanently linking themselves to some of the greatest artifacts of the time. By the time the great Medici reputation was run to the ground by less ambitious and honestly, horrific Medicis, usury was no longer the only sin they needed to be worried about.
Strathern peppers the long and twisted timeline with notable figures — the lives and works of artists (Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo), scientists (Da Vinci, Copernicus and Galileo), politicians (Machiavelli) and religious figures (Martin Luther), described in direct relation to the Medici speaks heavily to the longevity of Medici power and its far-reaching influence. This narrative strategy serves as a helpful point of orientation for those newly learning about the Medici.
A little-known fact that Strathern highlights in this sub-plot is the role the Medici played in shaping both Italian as well as French cuisine that we all enjoy; that their understanding of culinary theory — to bring out native flavours of meat and fish, instead of concealing them — changed what was initially a rather rudimentary of cooking and eating.
Strathern’s research for this book and the level of detail he chooses to indulge in ties the messy history together remarkably well; he focuses on the minutia of the lives of the Medici as well as those inextricably bound to the Medici family, bringing out in explicit detail, what it truly meant to be a Medici and also, to be inspired, encouraged and supported by such a family. His prose is simple but strong, which is what makes the difference between Medicis such as Cosimo Pater Patriae & Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Cosimo III & Gian Gastone all the more stark and revolting.
The aspect of the book that I am not a fan of is the lack of in-text citations and references; Strathern’s research is well-done but not evident. He explains in his author’s note in the end that he meant his book to be a popular one and not laden with heavy referencing, but I believe it would have served the book well to provide references. He does provide an extensive reading list in the end, however, and I for one, am quite excited to go through the list.
My brain does not naturally retain too many dates or too many events in chronological order but Strathern makes it easy to remember the overarching themes and then orient dates and times to those themes. The never-ending dates and wars don’t feel overwhelming at all — perhaps the biggest reason why I will recommend this book to those even remotely interested in the history of the Medici and the Renaissance.
Pair this book with Paulo Buonvino’s impeccably composed soundtrack for the Medici Netflix series and you’ll find yourself reveling in the highs and the lows, the grandeur and the austerity of life in Florence in the 15th century, alongside the Masters of the Renaissance. Meanwhile, my next Medici read will be The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King.
Us three forever…come what may. A naive promise of lifelong friendship made at the tender age of 8. To actually hold on to a promise made in the frenzy of a playground during lunch break, however, is an achievement for the books and Ruth Jones has chronicled its journey over four decades for all the right reasons.
Welsh girls Lana Lloyd, Judith Harris and Catrin Kelly don’t remember a time they weren’t best friends. They’ve spent every waking moment together, and they’ve faced the trials and tribulations of school and teenage together. They’ve shared clothes and books and homes. They’ve relied on each other like they were life jackets.
Until they travel to Greece in the summer before departing to college. Life changing revelations, drunken mistakes, and a web of lies replace their childhood oath of unconditional love, forgiveness, and honesty. And when they are forced to choose between each other and beautiful boys, the bond between them begins to fray. The girls find themselves on the precipice of difficult choices over and over again, and they begin to question if their friendship will stand the test of time and adulthood. Keeping a promise like that can be demanding, especially when life has very different plans for all of you.
For all the drama that unfolds over a span of 40 years, Us Three is an easy read, to the point that it feels like it was written for the sole purpose of vacation reading. Although it begins Wattpad fanfiction-esque style (i.e., along the lines of he had burnt hazel hair and green orbs that caught me off guard every time he peered into my soul) that sounds all too overused, it’s the string of adjectives and lightheartedness that you yearn for towards the end, when the girls’ lives become impossible to disentangle.
What’s most remarkable though, is that the overarching sadness of the second half of the book stems not from the twisted situations our protagonists find themselves in, but their day-to-day lives, which have become entrenched in deception and pain. There is a certain nostalgia that seeps through the pages: all you want is for the girls to find the happiness that once came naturally to them.
Every character has a unique voice, and because Jones gives them all an immaculate story arc, the sense of ending that begins to creep into the final pages feels complete.
Unfortunately for this otherwise incredible book, Us Three falls short on emotional power. It is rife with cliches and repetitive sequences; once you discover the pattern, there is nothing left for you to be surprised by. Even in its darkest moments, I found myself incapable of producing a visceral reaction. It’s the roller coaster analogy: this book climbs all the way up, but then rolls back down, robbing you of the adrenaline you’ve been so excitedly waiting for.
Perhaps it is this absence of a compelling and impactful narrative that makes Us Three easy to breeze through. Dramatic enough to keep you invested, but not so much that you are a sobbing mess by the beach. If maybe, the book were converted into a script for an online drama series, this endearing yet heart-wrenching tale would fare better.
I’ve been a fangirl for longer than I can remember. A fangirl, by definition, takes it a notch further than just a fan, obsessing, swooning and often worshipping the person in question. I was a One Direction fangirl (still am, mind you), but after they disbanded and a reunion didn’t seem probable in the near future, I had this void in my life that I needed to fill. I had to replace hours and hours of boyband talk with something, or someone else. And thus began the Shawn Mendes Saga. Quite naturally then, I was elated when he announced the release of his Netflix Original documentary, In Wonder. “The documentary follows Shawn on his 104-show tour around the world after the release of his self-titled third album. It features concert footage interspersed with various other behind the scenes moments as the camera tags Shawn around hotels, backstage bathrooms, car rides and trips back home to his hometown of Toronto,” notes Haseeb Ahmed, a long time friend and my personal editor who painfully watched the documentary with me.
Born in Toronto and raised in Pickering, Canada, Shawn Mendes rose to fame (almost overnight) via the TikTok of 2014, Vine. As his wikipedia page will tell you – and I know this by heart – his six second covers of popular songs caught the attention of a certain Andrew Gertler, who was also new to the artist management industry. Mendes quickly went from performing cover songs in front of a handful of people to performing songs from his three studio albums in arenas and stadiums. In Wonder documents this journey, which by all means is an incredible feat, but nothing other more iconic artists have not partaken in.
Mendes is barely 22, and already an A-lister celebrity. He owns a massive condo in Toronto that overlooks the Rogers Centre, a Tesla and at least 7 functioning pairs of airpods. He’s been invited to two MET Gala events, and has several Grammy nominations. He sold out Rogers Centre to 50,000 people. Mendes has endorsed brands like Emporio Armani, Calvin Klein and Roots Canada and has partnered with Tim Hortons. Mendes’ fame is not a joke, but whether it is worth enough to make a 90 minute documentary is highly debatable.
“To me, the documentary shines the most when replaying those bits of concert footage. Mendes’ shows himself to be a decent performer on stage and the lighting, music and general concert atmosphere come together to create something quite nice,” says Haseeb. As someone who has watched Mendes in concert, I can confirm. His showmanship is commendable, and it is meant to be enjoyable for an audience larger than deluge of teenage girls at his shows. His prowess was further proven by the live in concert movie netflix released the day after the documentary was released. Mendes had all 50,000 people at the Rogers Centre at his fingertips, making them dance, sing, jump and cry whenever he wanted.
But Haseeb and I were, nonetheless, baffled at the need for the documentary. What was Mendes trying to convey to his audience? That he’s just another small town boy who accidentally fell into the rabbit hole of fame? If yes, then he gloriously failed. Not only because he admits in the documentary that he is terrified that one day, when he tells people he’s a normal boy, they will stop coming to his shows, but also because it is known among the fandom that he suffers – physically and mentally – from his constant need to be validated by his fans and the powerful personas within the music industry. He is loved by everyone in the industry, and all they ever have to say about him is that he has a heart of gold and that he is the most humble musician to exist. This documentary says otherwise. In Wonder is all too polished; the scene where Mendes is crying for having cancelled a show due to laryngitis seems entirely staged and a very poor effort at crying. Even the third person perspective on Mendes comes from either his family members, his best friend, or his girlfriend Camila Cabello. Mendes sounds extremely pretentious and tone-deaf on several occasions as well.
“We never get to see anything other than the sanitized, ‘social-media friendly’ persona of Shawn that we’ve already seen on numerous occasions,” continues Haseeb. There is a certain level of jumping on the bandwagon and doing something productive during quarantine in the documentary, and it is far from being a raw, unfiltered insight into Mendes’ otherwise oh-so-normal life.
In spite of having previously unseen footage from Mendes’s life that fans will thoroughly enjoy, the documentary, in its execution, is rather unremarkable. “Unfortunately, simply having well shot and edited concert footage cannot be all that a documentary has to offer and here is where things fall apart. The documentary goes over the major topics like his background, his relationship with his family, his anxiety and his relationship with Cabello, but it does so in such a shallow and surface level way that the viewer never really gains anything meaningful from them. There is a scene where Shawn walks through an open field of sorts with his sister, reminiscing about the past. The intention is to provide some insight into his origins but it simply feels too mawkish to elicit any emotion from the viewer other than amusement. Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the somewhat perplexing decision to shoot part of the documentary on film in a narrower 4:3 aspect ratio. Perhaps the goal was to bring a more retro, almost ‘vintage’ feel to certain parts of the documentary but the transitions between this and the wider aspect ratio footage shot digitally were so random at times, it ended up detracting from the experience rather than enhancing it,” says Haseeb.
Having been barraged with messages and voice-notes from a fan like me, Haseeb realized that he “didn’t really know much about the man going into this documentary. In fact, that was one of my primary reasons for watching it. I had hoped that by the end of it I would finally have some insight into who this plain scoop of vanilla really is. One can therefore imagine my disappointment when I realized that despite watching an almost 90 minute long documentary, I was still no closer to figuring him out than I was at the beginning.”
In Wonder leaves one in wonder of Mendes’ career trajectory, and whether it has nowhere to go anymore. Provided that he wishes to sell out even more stadiums, produce ten more studio albums and go many more world tours, wouldn’t it make sense to make a documentary some more years down the line, encompassing all his achievements? Perhaps shed light into a few scandals even? It seems rather unnecessary to have produced this documentary this early in his career. Unless, of course, he and his management believe that it is over for good.
“At times, it doesn’t even feel like you’re watching a documentary but rather, a lengthy promotional video of sorts. This is rather fitting because let’s face it, that’s exactly what this is,” critiques Haseeb. To have released this documentary two weeks before his much awaited fourth studio album seems like nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Perhaps, an effort to make him relevant after the year-long break he took, frolicking in Miami with his high profile girlfriend and creating an album that has not rocketed into most charts, unlike his previous albums.
In our humble opinion, In Wonder a desperate attempt to be relatable, which makes the documentary all the more pretentious and contradictory. As the ardent Mendes’ fan that I am- or should I say, was – disappointment is rather an understatement. Mendes is talented, dedicated and hard working. He does a fantastic job of displaying his artistic skill, but this documentary is not it.
In Wonder and Shawn Mendes: Live in Concert is available worldwide on Netflix.
Haseeb Ahmed is a 23 year old Meteorology student at the University of Trento in Italy. Having previously graduated with a BSc in Physics from Jacobs University Bremen, Haseeb is an avid film fan and enjoys photography, playing the Legend of Zelda and bopping to Carly Rae Jepsen. Read his In Conversation interview here.
The symptoms of mental health conditions are often inter-sectional, and overlapping. They are rather general, and often not characteristic of the root cause of the condition. Therefore, it is essential to recognise specific marker symptoms so that correct help can sought early. Guest writer Scarlett Parr-Reid and I discuss these symptoms and our personal experiences of them in this blog post.
Trigger Warning: Some experiences mentioned in this post may be disturbing for certain readers. Please discontinue reading if you find yourself in such a position. Online resources for help and advice are linked at the end of this post.
Ushashi: Lately, I’ve realised how interconnected mental health issues are, especially when it comes to early symptoms. Just like a high fever is one of the earliest symptoms of the onset of any disease and doesn’t really tell you anything about the nature of the disease, some of the initial reactions of the body to anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks are also incredibly similar.
Scarlett: I understand you’ve personally experienced panic disorder and I am wondering what your experience of it has been like. Have you found ways to manage it?
Ushashi: I have been suffering from panic disorder for a while now, and it comes and goes. There have been long periods of time where I was feeling completely fine, but there also have been periods when it got rather awful. I’ve tried several things to address the issue, and as much as there are moments where they’ve worked wonders, sometimes they’re not as useful as I want them to be. And to this day, it is a mystery to me, how and why it all began. I’m generally happy with where I am in my life right now, in both professional as well as personal spheres. I have incredibly loving friends and family who are perpetually there for me and vice versa. I am also very meticulous about planning and organising; I have everything under control and duly scheduled almost all of the time. There is no reason for me to panic about anything. But the mind works in funny ways!
The first time I suffered one was in February this year, when someone I was very close to hadn’t replied to me all day! Not a single word, the whole day! So later in the evening, I started to get worried, and I had a panic attack, and since it was my first time, I was mortified and confused and absolutely helpless. It seems silly now, but it’s really the most random things that trigger a panic attack. Turns out he was sleeping the whole day.
What about you? What has your journey been like?
Scarlett: I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) three years ago. I had been feeling anxious for a while, but it had gradually worsened. I was recommended to take Sertraline, a type of drug called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), an antidepressant that boosts levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain. What I experienced was this wave of fatigue, like I was carrying this weight on my body making. It really helped to stabilise my mood, which had previously been very erratic, swinging from highs to lows. However, as I was taking it at university, it became clear that it was a hindrance to my academic performance, as I started to lose my concentration. It was like all this extra serotonin had hazed over my brain and thinking was scattered and directionless. This meant doing work was really tough, because I had to try doubly as hard to think straight. I couldn’t tell whether I was just some strange anomalous case study or whether the sertraline was actually causing more problems that it was helping. I waited it out for a few more months with no real changes in the fatigue. I started to wonder whether it was worth the side-effects.
Part of my experience of GAD was social anxiety. At best I can describe it as feeling like I was an alien in a room full of humans. They were all getting on and talking merrily and having a fun time. Meanwhile I was wondering if my clothes looked a mess, if I should make more eye contact and if I was saying things that sounded stupid.
Ushashi: I see so much of my experience in yours, in spite of having been diagnosed with something completely different. That haze, that fatigue you talk about; all too familiar. I’ve also found myself exhibiting obsessive-compulsive behaviours; one example would be constantly locking and unlocking my door. It’s so strange. Social anxiety is also something I have experienced. It’s this irrational fear of being caught red handed having a panic attack; I don’t want them to see me while I’m vulnerable and confused. And obviously, it’s a really common feeling and everyone suffering from a mental health issue struggles with social anxiety to a certain degree. And it’s the same social anxiety that prevents people from seeking help. So social anxiety is a starting point in the diagnosis, but it’s hardly definitive.
Scarlett: It sounds like social anxiety is a rather non-specific symptom of many conditions. Perhaps we would be better off looking for markers that really differentiate conditions from each other. Often the differences might be really subtle.
Ushashi: It’s important to address the subtle differences in the symptoms, and even more important for people to actually know about these differences, and to believe someone when they talk about their symptoms. For instance, one of the prominent symptoms of a panic attack is the tightening of the chest, and this eerie feeling of death. Your body grows cold, top to bottom, and as the temperature drops, you feel like you’re dying. But when you describe it to someone, it all sounds very animated, because how does one know what dying feels like? And the worst part is that your thoughts and symptoms during a panic attack are in this cyclic relationship, where the more you think about how you’re feeling like you’re dying, the more panicky you get. And the more panicky you get, the colder you start feeling. It’s really hard to put a stop to those thoughts and take a deep breath and actively try to calm down.
What I would also like to remind people is that the very early symptoms of COVID-19 and Panic attacks are surprisingly similar, and it is very easy to tumble down that rabbit hole. You can’t breathe, your chest is tightening, you can’t smell anything, and you think “Do I have COVID? Should I call someone?”, and then you panic about your health, but you’re actually having a panic attack about something else, but you can’t help it. And 2020 hasn’t been easy, so your panic attacks are justified. It takes so much time to recover from that.
Ushashi: How do you think we can increase awareness of these symptoms?
Scarlett: I think Improving education on ‘mental health first aid’ will help to increase awareness. Unfortunately, there is very little mental health in the medical curriculum. The more we know about the crossover between mental health conditions and the possible side-effects of medications, the better the decisions we make about our own well-being. For example, we can weigh up whether it is worth taking Sertraline and possibly experiencing fatigue and lack of concentration or trying another treatment. Early intervention is key to better long-term outcomes, which means knowing the markers of mental health conditions.
For anxiety, the marker symptoms to look out for are a difficulty concentrating and a tendency to catastrophise which gradually mount over time. Whereas panic is a sudden and intense wave that tightens your chest, leaving you feeling like you are going to die. What we’ve seen is that anxiety can lead to panic and panic can lead to anxiety. They are not mutually exclusive. And OCD involves unwanted thoughts and compulsions leading to repetitive behaviours. It’s not simply a need for control, but a sense that there is safety in order.
Ushashi: You’re quite vocal about mental health, its symptoms and how to ask for help. In all these years, what have you learnt about it?
Scarlett: What I’ve learnt from all this: mental health is a very fragile thing. And the work doesn’t just stop after a course of CBT. Mental health conditions are also very much intertwined. One can feed into another and one can also trigger another. Dealing with them begins with ruthless honesty and disciplined effort which has to happen every single day, not just when you have flare-ups. I remind myself of the Japanese word Kintsugi. Resilience. Cracks filled in with beautiful gold. This is what I try to embody when I approach my mental health. Whilst our mental health happens to us, it is not us. We are not defined by it.
Ushashi: Yes, I agree. And help is everywhere, really. It’s only a matter of seeking for it. The earlier we recognise these symptoms, the easier it becomes to address them.
Scarlett Parr-Reid has a BSc in Medical Sciences from the University of Exeter and is currently an MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London. She is passionate about the interrelationship of medical science and mental health. She has been volunteering with the Motor Neurone Disease Association for three years.For more from Scarlett, visit her website or her LinkedIn profile.
We understand that it is often difficult to talk about these things with people we might know, or for the fear of being judged. We have compiled these online resources for anyone to check out, should they in any way resonate with our conversation. Of course, nothing is better than professional help, and we highly recommend reaching out to someone if you experience any of the above mentioned symptoms.
Nightline Association: an anonymous listening service run by students for students every night from 8pm-8am during term time. This includes phone lines, web chats, Skype and emailing. https://www.nightline.ac.uk/
Headspace: a guided meditation platform, especially useful for those with panic disorder. They have meditations available for all kinds of situations, such as for when one is feeling overwhelmed, or if one is burnt out. There is also music to calm down to. You can also get it for free with a Spotify premium account. https://www.headspace.com/
For the final installment of In Conversation, I sat down with science communicator and my long-time mentor Olle Bergman – Swedish freelance writer and communication trainer. I met Olle at a TEDx conference in early 2018 and after a brief conversation about blogging and communicating science for the public, he took me under his wing, inviting me to join the team around Crastina – a networking platform for science people interested in communication.
Olle is one of the most enlightening people I’ve known, literally and figuratively. Every time you have a call with Olle, it unintentionally spirals into a meandering conversation and you come out of it having learnt something new about human psychology, communication or Swedish culture. The world, as Olle sees it, is very colourful and as I searched for one last person to feature in this series, I thought, “why not someone as friendly and reflecting as Olle?”.
In this interview, we chatted about how Olle became the science communicator he is today, how he tries to never be boring, his upcoming book projects (very exciting!), and almost everything in between. Fun Fact: while we were on this call, Olle was taking a long walk in the forest areas surrounding his small town in Sweden, and occasionally, greeting anyone he crossed paths with.
How did you become the science communicator that you are today? How were you inspired to inspire others to get their ideas across?
This question takes us back to the 80s, when I was a young boy studying science in high school. Both my parents were doctors. It was obvious to me that science was cool and interesting and useful and important, and it was also obvious to me to go down this path. However, I also became increasingly interested in literature, and I found my teacher, Helmer Lång, very inspiring. He was strikingly committed to his subject, and he made the entire class see the beauty and greatness of literature. That was when I first started writing and I began with poetry. In retrospect, this early writing was very immature. But that changed after my military service – I truly grew wiser during that one year of conscription. Isn’t it interesting how your personality settles down when you’re in your mid-twenties?
Anyway, I was this young man who loved writing and who loved science and I decided that I wanted to be a bridge builder. On one hand, I thought about studying medicine, but on the other hand I wanted to be someone who explained the sciences so I chose to study chemistry at the Faculty of Engineering, Lund University. I felt (and still feel) like chemistry lay perfectly in between biology and physics.
After I graduated, I was drafted into a lab – it’s a whole other story we would need to frame – but I spent three years as a research assistant and even became a Ph.D. student. And that’s when I burnt out. So, instead of doing communications after my Ph.D., I took a shortcut to a communication career. My first position was as an assistant medical editor at the Swedish National Encyclopaedia and I haven’t looked back since. I eventually joined a medicine tech company – first as an international education coordinator and later as a tech and PR writer at corporate communications.
The only formal communication training I have had was an evening course in journalism at Lund University – otherwise, it’s always been a learn-as-you-go thing.
You’ve mentioned [on your website] that one of the universal principles to use to make communication more effective is to “never be boring!”. How do you make sure you’re never boring or what you’re teaching is never boring?
In all my years as a chemist, as a writer and a communicator, I have noticed that there is a lack of a good definition of what the word “interesting” actually means. It often ends up in a circular definition! But what actually makes people turn their attention to something? Well, if there is no connection to their prior knowledge, the stuff you present will never hook them. This means that you too must have knowledge of something before you can muster any interest in it.
I have a technique that can probably be described like this: when I approach something, I look for similarities with other things. Can I compare it to something that people already know? It is important to develop analogies and metaphors. The use of metaphors goes far beyond culture – I believe this is how the brain works: we all see the world in patterns, we look for one thing in other things. It can also be very effective to demonstrate a contrast between the high and the low.
I also think to be interesting you have to have courage, you know? If you are too afraid of taking risks, no one will remember you. It’s like Monte Carlo – higher risks, higher gain. You can use stand-up comedy as an example – the higher risks you take while making jokes, the bigger the success if you succeed, but also the higher the fall if you fail. But you need that courage – you have to want to take the risks.
As a writer, a scientist and a science communicator, do you believe that your work lies where science and art meet? What is your experience working at the cusp of art and science?
I will illustrate my answer with an example. In a workshop I was conducting a few weeks ago, there were twelve chemistry Ph.D. students and some of them were working with nano-structures. One of them was studying something called a “tactoid”. And the most incredible thing was that she realised how catchy the concept of “tactoid” sounds, and that there definitely is something artistic about the cool images her research produces. It is really nice to see a generation that doesn’t set up boundaries between science and art – they already know the two fields are inseparable!
Science and art on their own are always limited, but when we combine them, we have a more powerful framework of understanding the world around us – and then we are finally getting somewhere! With a scientific approach to art and vice versa, we can reach new territories. There is a lot to explore, to understand, to feel and to work with: this represents my thoughts about the power of connecting science and art.
You’ve been writing a book! What is it about?
Actually, I have three book projects going on at the moment – one communication handbook, one popular history book about The Frontier culture in USA during the 19th century, and finally the one I think you are referring to: a poetry book called Pectoris or the infinite sadness of the alienated engineer. It started writing itself in the 90’s while I was working in an industrial setting … my first sketches in Swedish are made sometime around then. It is almost a 30 year book project!
Do you have a publishing date for it?
I don’t know yet, to be honest. I am very happy that the manuscript exists, but I am in no hurry to finish the book project. I could put it into the hands of a publishing company, but I think I prefer to publish it myself. DIY publishing is very easy these days, it gives you better control and you can keep more of the earnings (if there are any!).
In the process of writing this book, how has your artistic perception collided with your scientific expertise?
A med tech company is where science is being applied for the good of mankind. I had a practical help from my scientific knowledge. I wanted to write about my old company but move it away from nephrology and renal care. I wanted to be more natural about it, so, I shifted to a more poetic outlook; I tried to not directly refer to the scientific things such as a dialysis machine and blood, but only give shards of information.
You specialise in “medical, technical and scientific writing aimed at a popular audience”. What, in your opinion and experience, is the most important thing to remember when writing about science for the public?
My first recommendation would be to learn the craft [of writing] and not cheat; you need to be a good craftsman to make a difference! Make sure to connect to the reader and that what you’re writing is relevant to the reader at all. Of course, you should use stylistic writing tools, but you should never overuse them. Never let fancy writing come between yourself and what you want to say. A lot of the time, plain English and will be more than enough. Finally, at the end of the writing process, you should read the text and think about its relevance in 10 years’ time. Will it age with dignity, or have you jumped the bandwagon, using themes, angles and expressions which are trendy at the moment?
What would your words of advice to an aspiring science communicator be?
Make sure you understand what you are writing about and that your personal understanding of the subject is complete. If your explanations are vague or poorly structured, you probably need to study your subject in more detail.
I also have a special technique: I make sure my interviews are more like conversations than interrogations. First of all, this will help the interviewee loosening up and making them forget that they are in an interview. Secondly, an interesting, two-way conversation where you add your own reflections and analyses will inspire them to be more creative. You, Ushashi, should never be afraid to do that!
Finally, Olle about himself:
I guess I am a person who plays many roles: I am the father of five, a small-business man, a non-fiction and fiction author, a regular sportsperson et cetera. I am very proud of my family’s lifestyle, which is small town life rather than urban life. My wife Lotten (who is also a writer) and I made the best decision 20 years ago when we settled in Eskilstuna. In a small town, you are not distracted by a lot of things going on around you. This makes it possible to direct your attention to those things you want to engage with and that has played a very significant role in my life.
I have a lot of energy all the time; my brain is buzzing with ideas every second of the day, and when the batteries are low, I become an introvert. I always want something interesting to direct my attention at; this pushes me to constantly try new things or to learn more about things I already know. I think to have a healthy aging process, I must keep learning. I love reading; I try to read at least one book a week and keep the genre as eclectic as possible. I also enjoy music in every possible form – learning, playing, and listening.
For more on Olle, visit his website, or his science communication platform, Crastina.
For the fourth and penultimate installation of this series, I had the incredible honour of speaking to Divya Anantharaman, an award winning, premier taxidermist based in New York City and her specialties include birds, small mammals and anatomic anomalies. Having studied sculpture and fashion design in college, her passion for natural history drew her towards taxidermy. When she is not working, Divya likes cooking, reading, bird watching, and collecting vintage fashion. She also enjoys drag and burlesque.
In this interview, she tells me about her inspiration(s), everything about the beauty of taxidermyand how science and art are two sides of the same coin.
How and when were you inspired to learn about and practice taxidermy?
The moment it dawned on me that I wanted to be a taxidermist was probably one of my first visits to the natural history museum. I was so fascinated by the beauty of animals, and the ability to get up close to them.
I grew up and a city and didn’t have access to travel the world and see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, but as soon as I walked through those museum doors, seeing the artfully preserved animals changed my life and made me passionate about conservation. I wanted to make that magic available to everyone! I only learned taxidermy later in life, first by collecting books and watching videos online and practicing on legally salvaged roadkill or donated specimens, then by going to taxidermy shows and competitions once I gained more confidence. I switched careers fully about 5-6 years ago.
On your website, it says you left the corporate fashion industry to pursue your love of natural history. What is it about natural history that fascinates you so much?
Natural history reminds me of my place in the world. I’m reminded daily that all the life forms that inhabit this planet are part of something far greater than an individual. As much as I love and enjoy fashion, much of the industry is about ones self, image, and ego-nature reminds me that all those things are temporary, and gives me far greater perspective on what is important in life, and the legacy I’d like to leave behind.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work? What would the most difficult part be?
The most fulfilling aspect of my work is being able to connect people and animals, to inspire them to play a role in conservation.
The most difficult part of my work aside from constantly learning and perfecting anatomy and technique, would be finding ways to innovate and diversify this field.
How does art and science combine in taxidermy? How does this amalgamation increase dialogue between science and art?
In many ways! Practically, a successful work of taxidermy needs to be based in accurate scientific understanding of the animal (anatomy, habitat, etc) and executed with proficient artistic technique (sculpting, painting, etc). Science and art have a relationship beyond the practical-they ground each other and give each other imagination, unlocking new potential in each other. There is a wonderful harmony when the hand of the artist delivers a scientific message. Art appeals to our emotions and instincts in a way that science alone cannot.
What scientific principle would you say is central to the art of taxidermy?
There are a few! Most important would be anatomy, understanding not just what and animal looks like, but why. And learning the nuances of a specific creature that vary with age, sex, habitat, and other conditions. Also important would be chemistry when it comes to the tanning and preservation of hides, and stability or painting and sculpting materials.
What is your favourite animal to taxidermy, and why?
Birds! There is such a fascinating array of diversity in birds, and their ubiquity. Their ability to fly inspires awe from a tangible perspective as and evolutionary wonder, and from a more abstract perspective in that they carry rich symbolism, lore, even carrying our hopes and dreams.
Do you think Science and Art are two sides of the same coin? If yes, how so? And if not, why?
Yes! I do believe art and science are 2 sides of the same coin. They are both ways of observing and making sense of the world, many times with similar motivations. The difference I see most is the presence of the preparators hand-where science strives to be objective, art fully celebrates being subjective. The unique hand of the person behind the artwork gives it a sense of emotion and imagination, which can reach people in a way that acknowledges their humanity. I am so excited by the unexplored potential of combining art and science!
Anusha Banerjee is an aspiring geologist and a budding digital artist from Kolkata, India. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Geology from Calcutta University and then a master’s degree in Applied Geology from Presidency University, Kolkata. The “art-science-ness” of geology continually intrigues Anusha and in the future, she wants to be able to reach out to anyone interested in art and/or science, and make geology a tad bit more accessible. Anusha also loves to play the ukulele and the keyboard and sing, read random stories from history, browse r/etymology on Reddit, or explore her hometown, Kolkata.
In the third installment of the In Conversation series, Anusha and I talk about her love of geology and e(art)h science and the very prominent artistic element of the science of rocks.
When and how were you inspired to study geology? Could you elaborate on your experience studying geology?
This one is an interesting story. As a child, I loved the arts and sciences equally. In school, we were made to believe that they are both vastly different and can never become one. But over time, I began to find that they converged very often, and sometimes very evidently- like the colourful salts in chemistry lab, and fractals in mathematics. Back then, I was very interested in astrophysics and astronomy, and its least to mention that the images of space are enough to make anyone gasp in awe. So, I thought “Great! I am going to study astronomy.” At such a time, I began to realise that I’m going to have to dedicate a lot of time and energy to math, which sounded very intimidating to me. I started having second thoughts about the subject. One of my seniors from school told me about geology. Even though I had heard of the subject before, I didn’t know much about it. But, I was intrigued!
It was fascinating- like being a forensic scientist of the Earth. The final blow came when I saw pictures of thin sections of rocks. To think that rocks could look like…that just did it for me. Then onward, it was just one beautiful journey.
What is your fondest memory of your time as a geology student?
There’s too many to start with, honestly. A lot of small moments make up my favourite memories as a geology student. The first time I held a real fossil in my hands (it was an ammonite), the first time I used a rock hammer to obtain a rock sample, the first time my classmates and I made a structural map of an area. Most of my fond memories go back to the field trips of five years, and practical classes- I can’t mention one by not mentioning the other. So I’d like to share a different, yet fond memory. This is from August 2019, when we were in Tokyo, Japan for the 23rd India-Japan Student Conference (IJSC) organised by Nihongo Kaiwa Kyookai Society. On a day off, I travelled to Tsukuba, and visited the Geological Museum in AIST. This is the biggest and only museum of its type in Japan, and has always been on my bucket list. It was my first time in a foreign country and travelling on my own to a place I have always wanted to visit was an emotional moment for me. There’s a replica of a fold from Jurrasic Age, in front of which I always wanted to take a picture of. And I did!
In the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon Cooper is famous (or infamous) for saying geology is not a real science. How would you refute him?
Oh, right. This one. I don’t think it’s advisable to go into an argument with Sheldon Cooper, but if I had to anyway, I’d like to remind him what “science” means- an endeavour to understand. There’s no such thing as “real” science, in my opinion. Something is either science, or it isn’t- in which case, it might be pseudoscience. It’s least to say that geological phenomena exist- we wouldn’t even be here if tectonism didn’t operate! Geology is indeed interdisciplinary, but it is also a science in itself. I might have overused the word “science” too many times, but I hope it explains the point.
How would you say art and science combines in the field of geology? What do you think of this combination?
I like to call my subject e(art)h science, because there’s so much art in it! I can never imagine geology without all the visual art there is in it- from the thin sections, to the stratigraphy, from crystallography and mineral structures, to palaeontology (macro- and micro-). You can see fractals in real life when looking at the Digital Elevation Models of mountain ranges, or the sutures of an extinct ammonite fossil, or the Fibonacci spiral structural of the Nautilus. I don’t have to mention how beautiful and exquisite the geodes and crystals look. Rock outcrops have a beauty of their own. However, thin sections are my favourite. Rocks are made of minerals, and minerals have different optical properties. What this essentially means, is that light interacts very differently with them. Fun fact! A rock is sliced to as thin as 0.035 mm to be able to study their mineral composition under a microscope.
(With jargon: Most minerals are anisotriopic- meaning they have different refractive indices along different directions- and in order to differentiate them, a regular transmitted-light microscope is usually not enough. For this, geologists use a special “polarising” microscope. First the light passes through a “polariser”, which allows light to vibrate only in one specific direction. An “analyser”, or second polariser changes the quality and direction of this light wave. With the help of a rotating stage, minerals are seen to have various “interference” colours- which very simply are the wavelengths of light they intercept.)
(Without jargon: Most minerals have a complicated crystal structure and can’t be differentiated using a regular microscope. Geologists use special “polarising” microscopes to identify the various minerals of a thin section. Under a polarising microscope, a special filter (called “analyser”) reveals the hidden colours of these minerals).
It’s truly magical.
Would you say the mundane world around you has changed since you began studying geology?
Entry into the world of geology is a one-way ticket. Once you are in love with the subject, you start seeing it everywhere. You start seeing it in the mineral grains of the “granite” tabletops of your kitchen- spoiler alert! These “granites” are not always granites – or the marble flooring of your house. Trips to the beach mean looking at the shape of ripples and understanding how the currents led to their formation. Travelling to the mountains mean understanding what rock type they might be made of and understanding the tectonism which led to their formation.
My gallery is often full of pictures of the rock slabs which make up an ancient temple complex, or polished slabs on Metro pillars. But most importantly, geology is more than just rocks, petroleum, or coal. Geology is a way of life. Once you start viewing how the Earth works and realise our place in it- you start to understand things on a deeper level, especially the greatest ongoing crisis at hand- climate change, and what it means for our species. In short: it’s not good news.
What form of artistic expression fits best in showcasing the beauty of geology?
Photography and painting! We’ve all become natural history illustrators (of rocks, fossils, and thin sections) in class some or the other time. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. My favourite e(art)h science pages are @drrhcmadden (rock samples), @alexstrekeisen (rock microscopy) and @linajakaite (3D geologic artwork) on Instagram.
Finally, what’s your favourite rock? Why?
I had to think about this for the longest time. There are quite a lot of interesting rocks out there, but I guess my favourite would be basalt. This rock is formed by the solidification of lava on the surface, and is abundant on the Earth, Mars and the Moon. At places, it forms a particularly interesting hexagonal-column-like structure- these are called columnar joints and I think they’re very cool! Another reason I love this rock is because even though it looks dull and uninteresting on the surface, the thin sections reveal their beautiful colours!
For more on Anusha, visit her Instagram account. And stay tuned for a secret project she is working on!
Sneha Bharadwaj is a professional Indian classical dancer and has, over many years, established a Bharatnatyam scene in Munich, Germany. She graduated from Bangalore University with a bachelors degree in choreography, and later, from Bharatidasan University with a master’s degree in fine art. A recipient of many prestigious awards, Sneha has performed at various dance festivals in and around India, Germany, USA, France, Switzerland, Poland and other countries.She is also trained in Indian Martial Arts and Yoga. She is the founder and artistic director of the Indian dance school & company in Munich, ‘Abhinaya Indischer Tanz’ and ‘Abhinaya Tanz Kampani‘. By empowering through art, she hopes to continue celebrating South Asian art in Europe in all its glory.
In the second part of the In Conversation series, I spoke to Sneha about the art form she excels in, the highs and lows of it, and if the combination of science and dance is an arena that can be successfully explored.
How and when were you inspired to take up dancing as a hobby?
It was my mom`s dream to dance and she wanted me explore movements…for as long as I remember we both use to swirl and twirl to music, and she saw me the happiest when music was on and I jumped to express. With a busy school schedule, dance became a part of me. I was 5 when I started my formal training in Indian Classical Dance Bharatanatyam, under Late Guru (teacher) H.K.Raj who nurtured me into a dancer that I am today.
Do you remember the moment when you decided to pursue it professionally?
The process to pursue Art as my profession was very organic. I PROUDLY took up Art in the university…but the path, in the beginning, was scary. You see, socially, art is still not a valid profession because of the financial viability and no laid out career path, and so very early on I realized uncertainty is what you sign up for when you say you want to live a creative life.
Your question made me look back and I cannot pinpoint to a particular moment as when I decided to pursue it as my profession; art has been my constant companion, my happiness.
What would you say is the most exciting part of your art? Is there a mundane/difficult aspect to it as well?
Everything! The highs and the lows of creative process. Perhaps the most difficult part for me is the emotions. We artists work with our emotions, which are sometimes our own and sometimes the story or the particular character that we are working on and at some point, it does get exhausting to carry intellectual emotions and emotional empathy of a subject all through. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there is no particular login and log out in a creative process.
Whenever I experience feelings of discomfort in my life, I need to find an answer by transforming those feelings into my art. As much fun as I have in the studio, I take my role as an artist very seriously and I think being socially and politically aware of my surroundings is very, very important.
Choreographing is always like bringing new characters and stories to life and even parts of ourselves to stage. My storytelling arcs rely largely on research, community, and lived experience to form what I call a kind of constellation. And when the time comes to stop or to exhibit, I never really finish; all my works constantly grow in me, as the more you try to say, the more there is to tell. It is all about weaving a thought you have into a tapestry for others to see and be moved by.
If someone who isn’t well versed in Indian Classical Dance asked you to explain your art form (Bharatanatyam) to them in 3 or 4 sentences, what would you say?
Bharatanatyam is one of the major tradition of performing arts in India. It originated in the temples of India. The classical dance form Bharatanatyam is a profound synthesis of aesthetics, philosophy, sculpture, movements, poetry and literature. The art form is a mirror for ethics, laws, and the functioning of the society of today and of the past. It gathers all these strands and sets them in motion.
As someone who has pursued art professionally for a large part of their life, have you tried exploring the scientific aspect of your work? If, that is, you believe there is a scientific aspect to dance?
We live in a world of motion, energy, space, and time. Certainly, there is physics in dance…Bharathanatyam and Classical Ballet is an orchestration of the pull of the earth and freedom of space. It is indeed interesting when an analysis of physics is added to dance but I haven’t explored in depth. I hope to work on this path in the near future.
What emotional and physical benefits does dance have on our body? Have you experienced these benefits within yourself?
I always approach my work at 3 levels:
On a physical level (Adibhuta), dancing is similar to that of other cardio activities — it works on all planes of the body, including lateral and rotational, which in turn conditions all muscles.
On an emotional level, (Adidaiva) it is an instrument to express, as it allows you to express every drop of emotion, to feel, and to unapologetically be yourself.
On a philosophical level, (Adhyatma), it is a journey inwards. By completely absorbing our attention for a long or short magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.
Sat-Chit-Ananda is the term I always try to see in my every practice and performance where,
Sat – To be present
Chit – One with the Art
Ananda – untainted bliss
Do you believe we can use dance forms to communicate scientific concepts and increase accessibility to science?
Art is about connecting with people’s emotions. It’s personal and at the same time, universal.
In art forms, we are telling stories and stories should have characters and characters should have emotions. As I have mentioned, art is not just an intellectual process but also an emotional process. So if you are able to characterize or add emotions to science then it can be performed but it won’t stand as an epic work.
Science, the law of nations, constitution or commerce, economics, etc, when highly anthropomorphized and personified, can be brought to art. Just with pure dance (termed as Nritta) one can depict many scientific concepts (gravity, the structure of atoms etc.) but it will be a visual representation. One can definitely communicate scientific theory through art, but they would not become entertainment unless you humanize them.
Science concerns itself purely with the material world (Adibuta), while art transcends one from the material world to beliefs and emotions (Adhidaiva) and graduates to the philosophical world (Adhyatma).
Of course, experiments and science can be communicated through art forms like dance, but one needs to balance it, as there is a huge difference between the intellectual and emotional sphere. As a choreographer, you have to be very careful: you must make sure the science is not incorrect and that the art form still makes an impact on the heart.
If you had the chance to work with a scientist(s) to produce a show that revolves around a scientific concept, which field of science would you choose and why?
I believe an artist’s role is almost that of an alchemist. If I had to choose a scientific field, it would be physics; collaborating with the ideas that encompass both dance and physics is definitely worth the effort.
Learn more about Sneha hereand also connect with her to witness more of her art!
Julian Barnes’ latest novel (2018) is every bit a love story, but in more ways than one, not. In this very long story that spans decades, there is love lost and love gained, love given and love taken. There is filial love, romantic love, unrequited love and pure lust. And our narrator, Paul, reflects on all these kinds of love; all the myriad kinds of love he has experienced in his lifetime.
But as we fail to recognise initially, The Only Story is also about anger and about trauma, about anger as a result of trauma and trauma as a result of anger. It is about the various pitfalls of adulthood and the naivete of adolescence, and it is about loss, tangible and intangible. All of it, borne and witnessed by someone madly, deeply and irrevocably in love.
The Only Story opens with university first year Paul (19), visiting his family in suburban London over summer. His mother has signed him up for the local tennis clubs, in the hopes that her son might meet some beautiful ladies. Paul heads there reluctantly, and meet some ladies he does. Only it’s a lady, Susan (48), who is married with two adult offspring. At this point, the novel is all too predictable: Susan’s marriage is in shambles; Mr. Elephant Pants — as her husband is lovingly called – is a morbidly obese alcoholic and a fantastic villain. Paul is young and rebellious, and he is reveling in masculinity. Paul believes that beautiful Susan (who is also wise and nothing like the rest of her ‘played out generation’) needs to be rescued.
And so follows a relationship that is for the tabloids and village gossip. While Susan is never too vocal about the relationship, Paul is far from ashamed. In fact, he wishes his relationship was even more scandalous. Little does Paul know that he would be in it for a lifetime, and that the consequences of his first and only love are beyond his comprehension.
It doesn’t take a lot of intellect to realise Paul and Susan’s relationship will go downhill and eventually end. The real mystery lies in the when and the why. Why did Paul believe Susan needed rescuing? What happened when they ran away to London? When did Susan first resort to the whiskey? The answers are hard to find: Paul is somewhat of an open book and Susan remains an enigma throughout their tale. No one, friend or for, ever knew Susan. Consequently, there are either vague answers given by a man in love, or no answers at all. Paul frantically searches for explanations and answers as well, but time is precious when you are watching a loved one succumb to alcoholism and you are helpless.
As put by The Globe and Mail, the characters in the book end up nowhere (unless they die). But Barnes’ writes exceptionally, knitting an elaborate tale out of a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Paul, now half a decade later, draws endless conclusions about love and its exploits, which when listed out, seem overly pretentious. More often than not, I found myself saying, “No one asked for your two cents.”
However, amidst pages of long due realisations, there are two worth thinking about: first, “most love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger”, and second, the lifelong power of prehistory on our relationships.
In the end, Barnes’ magnificent narration is what keeps the novel engaging, in spite of the lack of a significant plot twist or a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps, the cleverest device he uses is the shift of pronouns: Paul goes from “I” to “you” to “he” the farther he drifts from his relationship and the more estranged he gets from Susan. The anachronistic structure of the book, without emphasis on any specific event, is also intelligent, as it focuses on painting a larger picture of society and its perceptions of love.
I’d ask prospective readers to choose this book at their own risk: read it only if you are interested in the musings of a fifty something man as he looks back on his love story, his only story.