Friday, October 26, 2018

Booker Book #41: The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a beautifully written novel about people of India: those who are born there, those who live there, those who leave and those who want to leave. One of the central characters, Sai, has been raised in India, but in a Western convent. She goes to live with her grandfather, who returned to India as a judge after being trained in England. The grandfather finds he and Sai have much in common. Another main character, Biju, has left India to pursue the American dream, which turns out to be sleeping on a table in the cheap restaurant where he works and getting no medical treatment for an on-the-job injury. Others are immigrants who are kicked out when the locals try to create an independent state. It seems the population is in a frustrated flux, with people who want to go unable to leave, and those who want to stay being evicted.

I found this novel too sprawling and slow, like Midnight’s Children, which I also didn’t enjoy very much. And yet, despite the long unfurling of the plot, I still did not feel that I got to know the peripheral characters well – I could still barely tell them apart by the end. The “Indian” novels I’ve enjoyed most so far in this project have been by Englishmen: The Siege of Krishnapur and Staying On. I also loved The God of Small Things, which has a tighter, more Western-style plot-with-a-twist, and was a bestseller here in the U.S. So maybe my novel sensibilities are just very Western. I am still glad that this project is pushing me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to read novels I wouldn’t otherwise.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Booker Book #37: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2002)

This book is out of order because 1) I listened to it on audio CD, which takes me a lot longer than reading; and 2) I’ve been stewing about it for a few days.

Pi (short for Piscine, which is French for swimming pool, which foreshadows the extraordinary amount of time Pi will spend in the water) is the son of an Indian zookeeper. When the father decides to take his family to Canada, a few animals come with them, headed for new zoos. Unfortunately, their ship sinks.

I think most people who haven’t been living under a rock will not be surprised by this next part, but in case you do have a comfy reading nook with Internet under a wedge of basalt or granite somewhere: surprise! Pi ends up alone on a lifeboat with a tiger. Actually, a tiger, a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena, but boy and tiger are the big winners in this very short game of battle royale.

Now, in order to talk about why I’ve been stewing about this book, I must announce:
THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don’t want to see them, skip to last paragraph.

You’ve been warned. So, Pi learns how to cohabit on a 30-foot lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. The way he does this is all very interesting and scientific; the youngster has luckily read a lot about zookeeping and circus training. The reason I started this book a few years back and put it down is because I could not swallow Pi’s Pollyanna attitude. He could not stop plugging religion – and not just one faith, but three.

Pi is a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, and cannot stop praising all his many gods for this and that. Even in Pi’s darkest days, his faith never wavers. I find that completely implausible: that a person tested by seven harrowing months lost at sea with a huge carnivore would never waver in his religious belief. It would not matter to me whether he came through this test with or without his faith intact. An interesting protagonist develops, and we don’t see Pi develop. Like his faith, he simply endures.

Finally, and this is the BIGGEST SPOILER OF THEM ALL (you’ve been warned again), the book strongly implies that the tiger is a metaphor for Pi himself. At the end of the novel, Pi tells a second version of his story in which we can recognize the orangutan, the hyena, and the zebra in three human characters. This is a more blood-chilling and tragic story, because it involves humans struggling together and against each other for survival. It is tragic, and we can definitely understand why Pi would have preferred to live with animals, who can only be accused of acting on instinct when they kill. At first, I felt let down and cheated, because I had failed to see the hidden alter ego. But then I thought of a few great stories that use a similar device that I also didn’t notice: the movie “Fight Club,” the movie “Black Swan” (I’ll refrain from ruining anything else for you rock dwellers who are still reading) and I realized this was really a tour de force, though I still want the part with the tiger to be real.

So, this was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, I was frustrated by the novel’s religious aspect. On the other hand, the metaphorical twist was clever and unexpected. The story itself is original and replete with fascinating detail. I look forward to seeing what the movie does with this incredible novel.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Booker Book #40: The Sea [Again] by John Banville

Apparently, when white British males feel alone, they head for the sea. In this fortieth Booker Prize winner, The Sea, by John Banville, the protagonist Max is recently widowed, and returns to the seaside scene of his first childhood love. Looking at just those bare bones, this book has much in common with The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. However, despite their similar names, the books could hardly be more different. While Murdoch's novel is a frenetic romp, Banville's is all melancholy lyric and languor.

Banville’s book is also similar to Holiday by Stanley Middleton, in which a man struggling with his marriage seeks solace at a childhood sea resort; and even with Troubles, by J.G. Farrell, in which the Irish conflict impinges on another seaside resort and young romance.

At The Cedars, the house once rented by his childhood love's family, Max wrestles with his increasingly unreliable memory and retells, haltingly, two stories of loss: that of his wife Anna, and that of his first love Chloe.

The writing is beautiful and poetic. Banville makes up words like “coldening” unselfconsciously while waxing philosophical on the meanings of life and death, memory and imagination. And the plot twists are as breathtaking as an undertow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Booker Book #39: The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

The protagonist of The Line of Beauty, Nick Guest, is aptly named: he reminds us of Nick Carraway, the middle-class observer of Gatsby's high life; and he is a guest, at the home of a Member of Parliament. He is also a gay man in the 80s, anxiously pursuing sex for the first time in the years just before AIDS rears its ugly head.

Nick has been invited to the conservative MP's home ostensibly as a friend of their son's, but his secret mission is to keep an eye on their mentally unbalanced daughter. Our protagonist pursues beauty and romance, while the straight and respected around him have affairs and hide mental illness. The hypocrisy is glaring, as well as a setup for heartbreak: the lower class but well-educated loyal dependent comes to think he is part of the family; sadly, blood and money turn out to be much thicker than water. The novel explores gay love and lust, Thatcherism, and social prejudice in England.

Hollinghurst's writing is beautiful, including the graphic sex scenes. I was reminded of the understated sophistication of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children.