The many voices of concern

The blurb describes this novel as a ''modern, multicultural retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear'', but the author seems to take a fair amount of poetic licence in the retelling.

Though reduced to the life of a cripple on account of an accident, Hardev Dange hardly appears the modern equivalent of Lear. Even whilst sitting on his wheelchair and facing the threat of the bank foreclosing on his house, he does not come through as the tragic figure that the reader must keep feeling sorry for. Rather, Dange makes up the most complete character in the book as he fights off the efforts of the bank’s emissary to persuade him to give up on his house.

Priscilla Uppal reveals a great understanding of the dynamics that drive families and attempts to give each one a say. But at times, especially in the early chapters, the reader is confused when the voice shifts from one character to another in the space of a couple of paragraphs. The flip side of giving each persona a fair chance is that some characters are better delineated than others.

 Hardev’s son, Emile Dange, is a confused character, as he wrestles with his sexual preferences and career choices; eldest daughter, Birendra, is fickle and not very keen on continuing with family ties after her wedding, whilst youngest daughter, Dorothy, with her hearing problems, remains an enigma. She uses the sign language and her Palm Pilot to communicate throughout the book, as she works on her hobby of collecting stories from strangers, by informing them that she is a good listener. Some of these stories lose out in the multitude of voices struggling to be heard. Dange’s health-care worker, Rodrigues, comes through as having a soul even whilst living a lie. Another multicultural angle is the introduction of Mohab, an Iranian immigrant who is struggling to interpret his religious teachings in relation to his life.

Uppal’s balancing of family issues with politics adds an interesting touch. Hardev is shown as obsessed with following news on television. There are references to Bush and the Iraq War, where the author reveals where her sympathies lie.

Priscilla’s strength is in her lyrical turn of phrase and the use of metaphors through which she conveys so much — “When you spend as much time staring at the ceiling as I do, you come to believe there are voices struggling to break through the barriers of the walls and our feeble misguided brains, complaining we never understand what’s most important?”
The book abounds in sketches, including the symbols for sign language. One wonders if these could have been dispensed with, to flesh out some of the characters. Also, in her attempt at building up suspense, the author indulges in a form of subterfuge which might be disappointing to some readers. Yet, the book is worth a read for its psychological insights into families, as Uppal dwells upon the pressures and strains of being a part of one. As Emile speculates, “What is a family, but a series of lies and misunderstandings, of broken promises, unfulfilled expectations, of pretending to belong when you don’t?” But the book is still a celebration of family, as it ends on a ray of hope for Hardev Dange for, “You have to make a home, where you can, with whom you can. If the door is locked, use your imagination. Perhaps a window will open.”

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