To be honest, I did think if I were called again to do Books of the Year, I’d start off with two books. And to be brutally honest, the first turned out to be an awkward choice. I found it was a four-year-old book: Irish author Caitriona Lally’s Rooney Prize-winning Eggshells. She couldn’t, for a moment, recall what the Rooney was, just as I couldn’t recall her winning it — it must remain an apologetic mention.
The second was Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing. “Silence on a tropical island is the relentless sound of water. The waves, like the sound of your own breathing, never leave you.” The beginning was the hook.
The story of Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi unfolds. The many people in many places featured in the Acknowledgements page acquire worth as we read on. If it’s reached my Kindle, that’s a sign! This year’s list begins with recommendations. Do read it. It’s a debut novel by an amazingly original voice who’s waded through muck, gush and storm to bring this to us.
A bit of hush
I would have said more about Shashi Deshpande’s Listen To Me, but I’m reviewing it soon for this paper. For an “ordinary” life, it’s a page-turner for both writers and readers. For someone who’s become the feminist voice, she shows us it’s more than that, leading us, often quietly, through her influences.
But There There, here’s a new voice. This is Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange’s debut novel. His preface notes how the pain of the indigenous people has been sanitised over the years. It’s the familiar story of colonisers spreading themselves all over, leaving the natives to adjust, cringe and make what they can of their own lives within the templates of the new masters.
“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You’re both and neither. In the bath, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.” This character’s mother is white, and father a medicine man with a native Indian strain somewhere. Besides the Radiohead song, the title is a reference to Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, her discovery that the rural Oakland she remembered was gone: “There is no there there”.
This year too, the attempt is not to bring you THE definitive list; there are many of those floating around. It is to place before you what floated up (and what I found interesting). I will bring Ondaatje and Warlight into the picture, though he probably features in most lists, having won the Golden Man Booker this year, and his current book was longlisted. Warlight reminds us that Ondaatje is that grand old man who rarely disappoints. The vast, the sensitive, the chaotic, the disturbing echoes of the past that rattle us as much as the protagonist. Even the too-familiar echoes keep us transfixed and waiting for more. His images are sharp in retrospect; returning, haunting, recalling, and even reinventing moments.
Which brings us to the Booker winner, Anna Burns’ Milkman. In the beginning, when the personal abuse and taunts meld easily into the background of violence, it is easy to feel the power of the writing: “In those days, in that place, violence was everybody’s main gauge for judging those around them and I could see at once he didn’t have it, that he didn’t come from that perspective.”
It is the first time a Northern Irish writer has won the Booker. As you read on, you agree with the chair of judges about “the plain-spoken, first-person protagonist”.
There’s one novel that rises up with painful drama; drama of the family, of the unresolved mind, of untamed nature. Drama with a frightening premise because, all ye good people, it could happen to any of us. Kristin Hannah is the author of more than 20 novels. The present one, The Great Alone, has a classic premise, a close-knit family with its own internal struggles, facing the hostility of a wild, rude environment. The father is an army vet disgusted with current government and politics, and welcomes the idea of moving into a rugged cabin and land he inherits from a friend from the Vietnam days. But dreams can’t design you. He becomes depressed, alcoholic and violent. His wife, used to the good, fashionable social life, goes along with it, accepting violence like love in the passion of their tumultuous relationship. It’s left to their young daughter Leni to assume responsibility as she watches everything snowball out of control. She’s easily the heroine you’ll root for this year, and the novel will keep you painfully engrossed.
Back home, I attended two launches: Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India by John Zubrzycki and Mappillai by Carlos Pizzati.
The first one had a magic show, or at least a performance by a mentalist (and I must confess it worked with everyone he selected, except me). I’ve always been fascinated by magic, right from childhood, and this book is a compendium of historical magic moments, groups, performers and connoisseurs, throwing up surprise names including Jehangir and Motilal Nehru. At the launch, Zubrzycki was factual and detailed. The book is a collection of photographs, episodes and magical one-upmanship, which is yet but an indication of what must have been.
In the second case, the author was interviewed by his wife. Pizzati has made a small, rude seaside place near Pondicherry his home, and he relocated because of love. This is interesting because his wife Tishani Doshi is also the author of a noted book of poetry this year, Girls Are Coming Out of The Woods.
Rooted in India
The India Pizzati sees in Mappillai, the Madras and its folks, its customs and bureaucratic hassles, encroaching neighbours, sapping weather, everything is set down in humorous, often irritable, honesty. It’s nice to see our world returned to us on a platter to make new sense of it. It’s also nice to follow him on his journeys.
When the call finally came for this compilation, I was between the devil and the deep sea: a trip to a place where the temperature often fell below -19 degrees C, and the launch of my own novel after nearly a decade. Fortunately, a couple of brave excursions into the bitter cold laid me low and I rallied in the warmth of 2018 books. I remembered Sucharita Dutta-Asane’s Cast Out and Other Stories, which had impressed me. From the very first story on the fringes of the red light district, the light ordinary people can throw on its darkness. The darkness is normal, the light casual, but unusual. Sucharita’s building of atmosphere and tracing of character, her expertise in handling language take us to places where only the mind has access.
Look out also for Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill, about Perveen Mistry, a 1920s barrister practising in Bombay. The social milieu and personal relationships grip you with cultural details and intricacies, of cloistered women in purdah, and then the murder mystery bursts in.
Two more tips before leaving: Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds and The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim.