Review: A Fine Balance

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.

No amount of remembering happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about misery and suffering — love and concern and caring and sharing came to nothing, nothing.

A FINE balance, rohinton Mistry

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.

Review: Us Three

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.

Review: A Little Life

“Of all the books in the world, why did you choose to read this one?” screamed my friend at my face as I pulled the big book out of my bag while we waited for our appointment. I told him that it had been recommended to me by someone I trusted wholeheartedly with book recommendations. I was barely 20 pages in and extremely excited for what the book had in store for me and so, I scowled at my friend for crushing my hopes. Little did I know that I was in for a read of a lifetime – yes, read of a lifetime.

For the first fifty or so pages, A Little Life seems like any other book set in the heart of New York – big city, big dreams and four friends fresh out of college, maneuvering their way through this chaos. They work, they complain, they go to parties and they go to art galleries and they throw parties – a standard but well painted picture. But 50 pages out 720 tells you nothing. What unfolds through the rest of the book is perhaps, one of the (if not most) harrowing and painful literary journey.

Jean-Baptiste Marion (JB), Malcolm Irvine, Willem Ragnarsson and Jude St. Francis (I’ve added their full names for dramatic effect) are out of university and…lost. They hold on to each other while the tide plays with their ambitions. We know that JB is an aspiring artist and Malcolm a budding architect, that Willem wishes to become an actor one day and Jude is a lawyer and mathematician. However, the book, that took Yanagihara eighteen months to write, spans over a time period of thirty years and so, friendships and relationships and careers and houses are fleeting.

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

A Little life

As the book progresses, two of the characters achieve their dreams and some characters slowly step away from the limelight of the narrative and it becomes evident that everything – the past, the present and the future – revolves around one character and one character only: Jude St. Francis. The book becomes a biography of a fictional character, stitched together by his friends, his colleagues, his doctor and confidante, his adoptive parents and most importantly, his past. Nobody really knows Jude (for a significant part of the book, at least), who he is and where he comes from and why he is so incredibly reclusive – and yet, they exist for as long as he exists; they exist because he exists.

Through hyperbole and exaggeration that she has admitted to using, Hanya Yanagihara describes the battle that life is when one has to live with chronic trauma and depression. She explores human suffering in all its forms and its origins and whether it truly ever ends, but at the same time, takes on unconditional friendship and what it means to be a true friend in a time when deteriorating mental health and anxiety is rampant. The extent of the trauma and the countered friendship are both grossly overstated – to the point that both of them are equally painful. The author tends to drag her readers through a bed of nails to truly emphasize her point and very often, this feels rather unnecessary. There’s only so much devastation and ache one can take; I found myself vomiting after certain parts of the book.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, 2015

A Little Life forces on you emotions and thoughts so profound and so tormenting that you’re often frantically searching for consolation in any form – either in an acquaintance who has read the book or cute kitten videos. There’s also a dearth of emotional counterpoint in the book – there is no relief or moment of deliverance anywhere. At about the 430th page begins the segment “The Happy Years” and one would think those years are truly happy and things look brighter for every character. It does and there’s a weight that’s lifted off your shoulders, but this is only the calm before the storm; things only get inexplicably worse. The lack of redemption creates an intense feeling of frustration that could drive you mad. You’re searching for a glimmer of hope like a child at a treasure hunt which keeps you turning the pages until you realise its over and you made it through Yanagihara’s ultimate test of patience and tolerance.

Without question, the prose is exceptionally eloquent, shifting smoothly between the past and the present. It takes immense artistic capability to able to write the way Yanagihara has and she truly makes the most of her role as a puppeteer. She wields her power to the most of her capability, which in turn, gives the reader a guileless experience. It took me a whole month and two days to finish the book – the most it has ever taken me to finish a book – and I cannot say I am disappointed. The story is no Pandora’s box, but more of a very difficult maze that one is navigating while also profusely crying.

A Little Life took a little part of my life with it when it was over. It taught me a great number of things, especially about friendship. I have a tight group of friends and the three of us have been kindred spirits for a long time now, in spite of having been separated by cruel distances. It’s one of the most unconditional expressions of love I have known and this book taught me how much more I need to love them, how much more I need to trust them and how much kinder I need to be to them; that life won’t let me say goodbye when I would need to.

Crying with Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm is a very emotionally expensive task but there’s no other way out of this book other than completely immersing one’s self in the misery and magic of it all.

Remember how in The Fault in Our Stars Hazel Grace says that The Imperial Affliction (her favourite piece of fiction) was the kind of book “that fills you with this weird evangelical zeal and you become convinced that the shattered world would never be put back together until every living human has read the book”? A Little Life is one of those books.

No review, no movie and no verbose explanation could do justice to the emotion that this book is. It’s nearly impossible to capture the essence of the book in any way other than reading it. I just hope I’ve been able to inspire at least one person to read the book. Despite the excessive and awe-inspiring melodrama and the disgusting amounts of pain, everyone (except those going through any kind of physical or mental distress, in which case I very strongly recommend against it) needs to pick this masterpiece up. It’s entirely worth it.

Ushashi Basu

Review: We Were Liars

We Were Liars, E.Lockhart, 2013

“Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair Family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.”

So begins the story of Cadence Sinclair Eastman, the oldest grandchild of a family that is so filthy rich that don’t have to worry about anything at all; they own multiple estates across The United States and they spend their summers on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts (there’s a nice little map of the island inside!).

We Were Liars aims to explore the complicacies of broken families and the avarice of self-centred adults through the eyes of innocent teenagers and deals with multiple, interconnected relationships that are more complex than they appear, but given the nature of these relationships, the narrative could have been more compelling.

Initially, the book seems like any other simple, generic young adult novel about a teenager brooding about her blooming love life; there are indeed multiple moments where it does take that turn – Cadence falls in love with the idea of love, describing her love interest as “ambition and strong coffee” and is constantly complaining about her privilege. However, the story eventually takes a darker turn and the events that unfold towards the end are absolutely jaw-dropping shocking. Although the most of the book does not invoke too many emotions, the twist at the end is worth reading through the rest of it.

The prose is broken,

like this

sometimes,

which makes the book very laborious to read at times. Although it aims to give a glimpse of Cadence’s thought process and what it is like to be her – with her excruciating migraines and her extremely privileged family – it becomes rather difficult to sympathise with her. There are more dynamic characters that play a role in Cadence’s life, but there is very little that describes these characters and why they are the way they are.

There is a general sense of discomfort while reading this book – but it is hard to determine whether this stems from the broken sentences, the part of the plot that remains incomplete (forever) or the sense of what’s yet to come.

Personally, I think the book could have been more emotional and longer; I was ready to invest a lot more into it than I did. I wish I could write more about the book in this review, but there isn’t much to write about, unfortunately.

Overall, We Were Liars is a light read and very easy to fly through in spite of the dark ending. It’s worth a read if you’re a fan of simple plots and light-hearted young adult novels.

Review: Turtles All The Way Down

I read this book much later than I was supposed to, especially since I call myself a fan of the Green Brothers. But better late than never right?!

John Green takes to the paper to voice the suffering of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old doing homework, reading college pamphlets and hanging out with her best friend, but writhing in the pain of her crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Oh, and through it all, she’s trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of local billionaire Russel Pickett.

But Aza is not the only one fighting this war with her all-consuming thoughts. In his most personal book yet, Green opens up about his struggles with anxiety and emphasises on the importance of having an open conversation about mental health with people around us. Through the voice inside Aza’s head, Green aims to give his readers a vivid idea of what it’s like inside the head of a person stuck and spiraling in their own thoughts, reminding us sometimes, it is just difficult. That’s all.

Turtles All The Way down is pain-laden and although it contains a fair share of Shakespearean teenagers talking about the universe, the insignificance of humanity and what it means to be human like all of Green’s previous novels, this is one book that would resonate the most with its readers, irrespective of age. Using simple yet eloquent language, John Green takes the book beyond its label of ‘young adult literature’, appealing to adults as well. Green’s ability to vocalise the millennial epidemic of poor mental health (which is not a joke by the way) is truly commendable and in my (not-so-important) opinion, what makes him so celebrated amongst his fans.

In spite of the slow start – which was perhaps necessary to build-up to the emotional ending – John Green delivers a heart wrenching tale that is sure to stay with readers for a long time.