All Goth, no fear

All Goth, no fear

This is a Gothic novel with all the elements in place but doesn't quite pull it off

Almost 100 pages into Venita Coelho’s new book, ‘Whisper in the Wind’, the narrator, an aspiring writer and heir to a business fortune in pre-independence Bombay, walks into the police station of the Goan village where he’s been staying and produces a braid of hair which may belong to a girl who’d gone missing five years previously. “What a lot of things you’ve been finding, Mr Irani,” says the Inspector.

I laughed out loud at the line — though that’s probably not the reaction the writer wanted. Jamshed Fali Hormazd Ratan Irani has come to the village after making a deal with his mother. He will take this time in Goa to finally try and write the book he’s convinced is within him. If this plan fails, he will return to Bombay, take over his father’s business empire, marry a nice Parsi girl and get on with a life that is far away from the writerly one he desires.

‘Whisper in the Wind’ is described in the jacket blurb as a Gothic novel. The elements of a Gothic novel are all present and correct; a troubled narrator, missing girls, lurking danger, an old house with a suitably deep and dark well, hidden rooms, family secrets and a rustic setting filled with suspicious natives. The girl whose disappearance haunts the village is Sara — she was an orphan and worked as a servant for the Casimirs, the local aristocrats. Her best friend and schoolmate was Nina, the Casimir daughter, who is mysteriously absent at the start of the story.

Jamshed blunders his way through various discoveries — the dilapidated house he’s staying in, next to the Casimir mansion, is absolutely bristling with hidden notes, diaries, grand pianos and endless clues to what may have happened to Sara and Nina. What he cannot divine from these crumbling papers, he fills with a made-up narrative of his own and these snippets are interspersed through the course of the story.

Coelho clearly has a delicate touch when required — she conjures up powerful images of a bygone Goa and its gossipy, socially conservative and Portuguese influenced culture. However, Gothic stories — Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ and Charlotte Brönte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ come to mind — succeed best when the prose is at its most sparing. Here, there’s too much going on. The first few chapters introduce a bewildering array of characters, all running into Jamshed, giving him cryptic messages and disappearing.

Like the inspector, the reader too is impressed with Jamshed’s ability to find something new on every page. It’s a surefire formula to propel the narrative forward — but at the cost of the coldly oppressive atmosphere such stories are meant to evoke. Too much noise, even in fictional worlds, hides the spectres from our vision and lights up corners that need to stay dark to be effective. Coelho eventually thins the herd enough to concentrate on just a few characters — but for those who enjoy a chilly read on a winter’s night, it might be too little, too late.