Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills – A Book Review


The restraint of who? – The restraint of beasts!
But where are the beasts?

Two workers, Tam and Ritchie, and the foreman, the narrator, are responsible for building high tensile fences on their clients’ farms. Their manager, Mr. Donald is a fastidious boss. So, they drive, smoke, rest, have tea, sleep, work, visit the local pub, look for women, have beer, get drunk, sleep. And again, and again. They need to be prodded, instigated, Tam and Ritchie, for them to be out of their beds and do some work. If not, they would rather have beer and sleep all day, and night of course. The fence is finally built and it’s looking good. Oh, but the client is accidentally killed. And buried.

So they move on to the next assignment. They drive, smoke, rest, have tea, sleep, work, visit the local pub, look for women, have beer, get drunk, sleep. And again, and again. The fence is finally built and it’s looking good. Oh, but the client is accidentally killed, and buried, yet again.

And then they move to the next assignment.......

The fences are built, but there’s no sign of no animals, and now there are no owners as they peacefully lie in the depth of the buried earth.

I surprised myself by not getting bored with the ludicrously trite routine of the characters; rather enjoyed their idiosyncrasies. I grinned at their indolence as they reminded me of some people I’ve had the misfortune to work with.

The author, Magnus Mills has subtly and metaphorically drawn the need to restrain the two legged creature as much as is deemed necessary for the four legged ones (Between 1979 and 1986 Magnus Mills built high-tensile fences for a living, an experience he drew upon for this novel). The need to be tamed, disciplined, berated, to move, to be motivated to move to greener pastures is felt needed by both; the safety in confines is the disposition of both. Like the beasts, we are born, live and die; we don’t give much thought to the goat that was served for dinner, do we, except maybe to the tenderness of the meat? Maybe, that explains the dead-pan humour (discovered this phrase when reading about the author) in the cold (accidental) killings of the clients. Was it sorrowful – no, was it deliberate – no, did it evoke reproach – no, was it funny – no, why should it? Was it forgotten – easily! Life goes on...

On another note, we feel free, safe in our confines, don’t we? We aren’t born to be free, we are born to be restrained – to do as we are told, do this, don’t do that, do it this way, behave, sit, stand, brush, eat, travel, go to work, return home, sleep, ready yourselves for another day of a mundane struggle – the more taut the string, the more effective the fence. An introvert would feel as free in a crowded party as would a garrulous person on a marooned island.

We are tethered by the invisible shackles of our thoughts and imposed values and we roam around feeling free only till we feel the tug of the chain, and then we saunter back to our safer grounds. We are herded into the influential lives that we live; only few choose to, resolve to break free and live in the wilderness.

As Oscar Wilde said “To define is to limit.” But then again, was that for humans? :)
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 6/10 

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – A Book Review

Why are we born? Why do we die?
And what happens in between?
What is truth? What is fear?
What is religion?
Isn’t fear religion? Or is religion fear?
Can we love everyone the same way; are we supposed to?
Who tells us what we’re supposed to; who tells the eagle to soar and the snake to slither?
And we can think, yes! So? Do we create our destiny?
Was I destined to write this review?
Is there a purpose?

As the books of Bokonon say, “In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.
And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.
“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.
“Certainly!” said man.
“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this.” said God. And He went away.

He’s John, a journalist. He’s out there to collect material for a book ‘The Day the World Ended’ – a factual book giving an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a scientist, the father of the atomic bomb is long dead; so all John is left with are his three erratic children, Angela, the tall horse faced, caring daughter who soulfully plays the clarinet, Frank, the quiet modeller and thinker and little Newt (Newton), a midget, a painter.  Stumbling upon their whereabouts, he crosses paths with Dr. Breed, Felix’s associate and comes across a brilliant discovery by Dr. Felix, a discovery that could change the world like all ‘Eureka’ian discoveries do.

“Dr. Breed keeps telling me the main thing with Dr. Hoenikker was truth.”
“You don’t seem to agree.”
“I don’t know whether I agree or not. I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person.”

The endeavour to know more about Dr. Felix and the discovery finds him on the island of San Lorenzo, an island cultivating utopian thoughts, where everyone believes in Bokonon and his books but are not supposed to. A roller coaster ride follows, where he meets the most beautiful girl in the world, is asked to marry her, is to become the President of the island and then – then he encounters Dr. Felix’s sinister discovery, in the most inexorably devastating way as all good discoveries are inadvertently showcased. The island, its caretakers, its people, all is made, bred, destroyed by the preaching of Bokonon and a higher authority, of course!

“What is sacred to Bokononists? I asked after a while.
“Not even God as near as I can tell.”
“Just one thing.”
I made some guesses. “The ocean? The sun?”
“Man,” said Frank. “That’s all, just man.” 

Now, who’s Bokonon? Is it important? Yes and no. Replace him with any religious preacher, teacher, leader that you believe in, have been asked to, forced to believe in; anyone or everyone your parents, your society asked you to listen to, follow and why? Because their parents and so did their parents asked them to; religion is traditional isn’t it?

The first sentence in the books of Bokonon is this “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies”
“She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing.” writes Bokonon

Isn’t every religion created? By a selected few, a privileged few? And who gave them the privilege to tell us what we should do, what we should believe, the way we should or shouldn’t live? And should we listen to them, to these obstinate men of God or these political zealots? We do, don’t we? Is there an option? Look around you, we are surrounded by preaching, teaching, lies; do we really believe in them, maybe not, but that’s not important. What is important is that we cling on to them, why, of course for safety, like a drowning man holding on to a float for dear life! Our existence!

“Are you a Bokononist?” I asked him.
“I agree with one Bokononist idea. I agree that all religions, including Bokononism, are nothing but lies.”
“I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense
So we all could be happy
instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
and I made this sad world,
A par-a-dise.”
- from the books of Bokonon
And if we break the shackles and become free thinkers, we say we create our own world, our own destinies. We think, we work, be creative, we wonder, we invent and He laughs. We send a man on the moon, we create satellites, we create penicillin and other vaccines and He laughs. Have you heard of earthquakes and volcanoes and tornadoes and floods and tsunamis and plagues and forest fires and of course wars, He mocks!

“Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.”
- from the Books of Bokonon
So then, are we mere puppets, is ignorance bliss? If everything was destined to happen the way it did, does, will, why then are we equipped with the ability to think? Is there any respite from this despair?
I say “Oh! What a plight!”
He says, “Just hold on tight.”

“My God – life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”
“Don’t try,” he said “just pretend you understand.” He quoted another poem:
Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly,
Man got to sit and wonder, “why, why why?
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land,
Man got to tell himself he understand.

This book is high on nihilism, there are no clear answers, and if there are, there is more confusion, more dilemmas. The more you delve deep, the more the confusion rises and all that it does is wake you from your somnolent safety and takes you a step closer to a lurking insanity.

Thought of and written in the most eloquent form, Kurt Vonnegut raises a subject of poignant interest, the most basic one. His wit and sarcasm is evident in his story telling as you grin and laud and applaud at his cunningness, his deceptions, and his clever ambiguities. You lose and find yourself between pangs of lucidity. You look at the sky now and smile OR you look at the sky now, frown and get back to what you were doing.

Some more Bokononism -

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 10/10
Kurt Vonnegut
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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge - A Book Review


George Hardy, rather Master George is an obsessed medical practitioner, a surgeon and an ardent photographer too. Shortly after his father’s untimely death, the whereabouts of which are to be kept a secret from the other members of his family, a choleric proliferation and the waging war against Russia sets Master George on a journey to offer his services to his countrymen, to the sufferers of war. Could he have possibly known that he was to turn into one, a sufferer and likewise, the ones around him?

Myrtle is an orphaned girl, taken into the Hardy family, raised to be a lady, to all - George’s adoptive sister, but that’s possibly an introduction for the world. For her, she’d rather be Georgie’s skin, which can be cut, wounded, torn, sutured, and repaired but remains till the very end, before it withers, fades. So, convoyed by Myrtle the infatuated, Dr.Potter the geologist brother-in-law, a caravan of relatives and of course Pompey Jones, the assistant, George walks into the labyrinthine decay of the war.

Beryl Bainbridge fascinates us with the numbness of war; the dead are luckier than the unfortunate living. Every brush stroke only deepens and darkens the colour, a singular one, of red, a bloody one at that, the only miscellany presented in its shades. And as one inebriates in the gory visuals, the putrid miasma of decay suffocates you but there is nothing to cover your nose, your eyes with, not even your willingness.

        a gun is meant to kill and so it will!
                a soldier is meant to, made to kill and so he will!
                a war is meant to destroy, burn, annihilate and so it does!

No dissuasion can keep a moth from the light; no enticing would keep Master George away from the war. Cut, cut, cut, tear, tear, tear, sawing limbs is the norm of the day; stripping a dead body of its soiled clothes to adorn a living is no dread. Nonchalance isn’t an option. Like Dr. Potter who’s losing it with all the delusions and hallucinations, one would agree that to be insensitive to the calamities of war is the only sensible thing to do; how would one breathe otherwise? To be insane is the only way to be sane.

In this decadence, in this coldness, the author manages to light up emotions and allure the reader with their dancing shadows. There aren’t any secret lives, or any secret emotions, almost everything is blatantly real, only trampled on by the squalor of war. Pompey Jones likes Myrtle, he believes the attraction more to come from the nasty cavern of poverty and squalor that they once belonged to. Myrtle is hopeless when it’s about George but he, the curer, is only a curer of the surface, the body; the soul isn’t a surgeon’s lookout. Can love possibly surface in such abominable conditions? Is it still important to know if you’re loved when a cover from the next bullet or the next chance for a meal are the only things you should really care for?
       "I stood , resentment wriggling like a worm within my breast. It had been my conceit that it was enough to give love, that to receive it would have altered the nature of my obsession. When passion is mutual, there is always the danger of the fire burning to ashes. Rather than lose love it was better to not have known it." - Myrtle

Bainbridge’s eloquent portrayal scratches beyond the surface and delves deep; the emotions infused in the characters are real and hence felt. Whether you shed a tear for the dead or not, the eyes will be in vain for the living, the living dead. The book and its gory descriptions reminded me of the movie ‘The Pianist’. I’ve read Beryl Bainbridge before, ‘Every man for himself’ but this one has struck a chord, an effective one!
My rating - * * * * * * * * * * - 10/10

Image copyrights:
Master Georgie cover -
Beryl Bainbridge -
Beryl Bainbridge

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Stranger by Albert Camus – A book review

Are we to fear God or love him?

This novella is about Meursault, a person indifferent to everything and everyone around him. Having murdered a person, he faces a trial and is convicted for the homicide. Though the story builds onto the indifference that the protagonist shows towards society in general, the essence of the book lies in the last few thought provoking pages, in his conversation with the priest – his obstinate and unyielding non-acceptance of God.

The book has raised a lot of questions in my mind and the inexorable ramblings that it has created strive to find answers.

Indifference – is it dangerous? Could be! But is it necessarily so? Could I force you to like me, like anyone, anything? Am I right in doing so – obviously not! What changes in me if you are indifferent? Is Meursault’s sending away his mother to an old age home, an act of indifference, couldn’t it be plainly an act of being practical? The lack of sadness at the loss of his mother, his inability to mourn her absence isn’t normal, yes. I would personally abhor such a being, but what’s he to do if he actually doesn’t feel it? Should he enact the perfect mourning? My mind does say that that’s being less human, as I said earlier not normal, but maybe he likes to live in the present rather than in the past or the future like most of us. Am I trying to empathise here or am I holding a mirror to my feelings, my thoughts with Meursault’s torso in an attempt to comprehend him?

The killing – was that an act of fear or ruthlessness? Was it the fear of being killed if not kill? He said the sun was in his eyes and he was tired. Why did he shoot again and again the motionless body once life had escaped it? Hmmm! That again could have been fear, right, or was it the sudden impulsive thrill from having pulled the trigger for the first time? For one, Meursalt for whatever else he was, wasn't a liar, rather he was a truthful person. His inability to express his thoughts exaggerated each of his shortcomings. The lack of pity, repentance, tears, his calmness, his irritating ability to let go is what makes it so hateful. But, aren’t we all, when we do something wrong, repeatedly asked by our dear ones to get out of it, to forget it – doesn’t that make Meursault a winner then?

If he was so grotesque a character, why was he madly loved by Marie or was she insane too?

Does God exist? For me, yes, for you, I don’t know, but the fact is, if He exists, He exists, whether your answer is a yes or no. Are we supposed to fear Him or love Him? Why then, like our parents, like our elders, the priest too forces Meursault to believe in something he doesn’t. Doesn’t that question the priest’s faith in the first place? His frustration at not being able to convince Meursault of God’s power, his presence, his benevolence, his forgiveness is derisive. Does he, the priest have all the answers just because he’s draped in a cassock and lives in the supposed house of God? His belief – isn’t it trying if he realizes that Meursault is created by the same power that created him. Can you, should you force someone to love a piece of poetry if he or she doesn’t appreciate it? Isn’t it beautiful by itself or does its essence fade away with the lack of appreciation of a few?

“I had only a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God”

Am I defending him? No, definitely not! Does Meursault seem even a bit moral? No. He seems almost a stranger to himself, to humanity. Then what’s disturbing me? I guess the fact that I, we expect him to be normal, his acts, his thoughts to be acts of textbook normalcy is what has irritated me as I advanced to dislike him. Normalcy, now what’s that?
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 8/10

Albert Camus

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene – A book review

Nothing’s ever enough for anyone! Not even goodness; time and again it needs to be proven; a thankless virtue that’s ostentatiously expected to lay bare, naked for others to see. Seeing is believing, isn’t it; mere feeling is not!

There have been very few books that I’ve liked from the very first pages, very few characters that have struck so strongly, a chord – the right one, for me to shake hands with and smile at them instantaneously the moment they were introduced.

“Innocence must die young if it isn’t to kill the souls of men”

            Scobie, a God fearing man as one can possibly be; not as God fearing as much as God loving, is an honest policeman in an African state in the times of World War II. His honesty, like always is seen as a banality to be pitied by others. He’s been passed over for promotion in the middle of a war. Scobie is content with the banal life that he lives, the place that he is in but; and there’s always a but! His wife Louise, who he loved immensely once, cared for, still cares, has gradually turned out to be, rather a responsibility than the love that once existed. Her inability to make friends, her happiness is of immediate concern to him more than anything else. She wants to get away; she terms him as selfish for not being able to arrange the money to send her away.

            Torn in a turmoil of justness and responsibility, Scobie readily falls into the trap of Yusef, a smuggler, a crook, a local businessman when he borrows money from him to send her wife away. And the trap only widens; but anything for the happiness of his wife.

“It was a relief to be on board and no longer alone together.”

As Scobie’s wife is away, he falls hopelessly and sympathetically in love with a dying ship wrecked patient Helen, much younger to him. What starts as a friendship, soon gets entangled into the grip of a painful, pitiful love affair.

 “What they had both thought was safety proved to have been the camouflage of an enemy who works in terms of friendship, trust and pity.”
“Oh”, she said, “why do you always tell me the truth? I don’t want the truth all the time.” – Helen

Scobie, now torn between his wife and an indignant lover, has a bigger concern – the answers that he has to give to the supreme. Very few, have I experienced to possess a soul so pure, such clarity in thoughts, so determined and conscious in actions, so strong willed. It’s so difficult to keep sanity intact in the midst of these inexorable, interminable thoughts that plague the mind; but it’s his heart that wins each time, a heart I term to be so pure.

Scobie now has to make a choice, never an easy one, between God and love, loyalty and sin. He is now derided by his lover as much as he is tested by his despairing wife. He’s responsible for one and immensely loves the other.

“We were happy. Doesn’t it seem odd? – we were happy,”
“Why do we go on like this – being unhappy?”
“It’s a mistake to mix up the ideas of happiness and love,” Scobie said
“How often he thought, lack of faith helps one to see more clearly than faith.”
“Well then,” she said triumphantly, “be hung for a sheep. You are in – what do you call it – mortal sin? Now. What difference does it make?”
He thought: pious people, I suppose would call this the devil speaking, but he knew that evil never spoke in these crude answerable terms: this was innocence. He said, “There is a difference – a big difference. It’s not easy to explain. Now I’m just putting out love above – well, my safety. But the other – the other’s really evil. It’s like the Black Mass, the man who steals the sacrament to desecrate it. It’s striking God when he’s down – in my power.”

And he, finally in an act of contrition chooses love over God; he finds God in love. What doesn’t exist won’t hurt the ones he loves, would it and like the Lord, he sacrifices himself at the altar of love.

“Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation.”

And because I love you so much Scobie, I detest your wife even more. She calls you selfish; her resentment seems so shallow when she’s the one who deserted you and came back only to chain you to responsibility, to gather safety because you were happy with someone else. You did all that you could and more for her but it didn’t take her much time to give herself to another when you were gone.

Many would indict Scobie for what he did, call his damnation, his act of complete contrition as cowardice. I don’t support it of course but that’s who he was; who am I to stand between him and God. I envy you Scobie for being able to love so purely.

Like the doctor in ‘Anil’s Ghost’, like Estha in ‘The God of Small Things’, Scobie stays with me and will forever. I have closed these books but they stay with me, these great souls; they for me are men of God. When I sit beside the serene waters of a lake, I’ll think of you Scobie, the calm that you possessed, the inner turmoil that you kept hidden from everyone, the sacrifice that you made.

“Why he wondered, does one ever begin this humiliating process: why does one imagine that one is in love? He had read somewhere that love had been invented in the eleventh century by the troubadours. Why had they not left us with lust? He said with hopeless venom, “I love you.” He thought: It’s a lie, the word means nothing off the printed page.

“When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...”

Thank you Graham Greene for taking me through this journey with Scobie, for miraculously expressing and passing on each of your, his thoughts to me.

This book was recommended by a friend, Giedre and I thank her immensely for introducing me to Graham Greene; he’s at the top of my favourite’s list now!
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 10/10
Images copyright:
Graham Greene


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple – A Book Review

          William Dalrymple, in one of his interviews says, “If I had five more lives, I would have lived all of them in India.”

I have travelled to Delhi many a times. If you ask a non-Delhiite about the city, though they would awe at the roads and structures, complain about the filth and crowd in some parts of the city, one common thing that they would say is ‘it’s a city of snobs’ and so would I.

Delhi – a city like any other city in the world; what’s the fascination attached to it? History, I would say and so says WD; a beguiling city built from a scratch and then destroyed, reduced to a scratch. And built again only to be destroyed again, and again, and again; like a potter’s creation at the wheel, marvelled at for some time and then thrown again to the hearth by the vagarious potter who doesn’t want anyone else to see its beauty.

Conquered by the mightiest of conquerors the world has ever seen, Delhi, apart from being their capital of power, was like a beautiful princess that every king or emperor vied for. It held a certain enigmatic love for them; a love, a masculine, salacious consummation that these monarchs couldn’t possibly find in their harems.

            WD’s research of the city is absolute. His travelogue extends from the epidermal surface of the current unconcerned multitude of the Delhi people, and excavates to scour layer upon layer of treachery, annihilation, love and power; an era long buried in the city’s abyss. WD talks of the mammoth structures the city hosts, their comparison to facades in the west, their historical bearing and the neglected state that they are in today. The ‘Red Fort’ receives a special mention and righty so; the throne from where was ruled most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan during the time of the celebrated Moghul Emperor Shah Jehan. WD writes, it was the apex of Moghul power, the golden age of unparalleled prosperity.

            The story of Delhi is incomplete without the mention of three important entities; the Moghuls, the Britishers and the bloody partition. Powerful and obstinate rulers like Timur the lame, Muhammed –bin-Tughlaq, Nadir Shah, Shah Alam, Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb, WD says, had their own doctrines, their own laws to abide by, each so different from the other. Some respected the saints, the others abhorred and beheaded them. The city’s story is replete with acts of deceit, treachery, barbarity and incest too. How many people would believe that the great emperor Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz was salaciously close to his eldest daughter Jahanara Begum. Needless to say, each king had his own harem, decorated and filigreed with the choicest of women.

            “As you sow, so shall you reap”, probably was quoted of Shah Jehan, an emperor who, though liberal than the others, conquered his place to the throne by killing his brothers and their children and capturing his father. Not surprisingly the barbarous Aurangzeb, one of his neglected sons imprisoned him, killed his own kin  and presented to him on the dining table, the lifeless head of his favourite son and successor to the throne Dara Shukoh.

WD meets historians, researchers, knowledgeable people, old members or their descendants from that time in history. With the changes in the throne, the language of Delhi has come a long way though the transformation isn’t a pleasant one. From Persian to Urdu, an immaculate language delivering and demanding respect, the language of the poets, the city now has to do with Hindi. Delhi, once was the land of poets like Mir, Jalal-ud-din Rumi, Ghalib and the likes, and the greatest gift to a king would be the latest verses from the great Mir than any jewel or tapestry.

While meandering around the streets of Delhi, WD meets some interesting multitude like the eunuchs, the masters of the pigeon fights, the leftover Britishers and their families, now called Anglo Indians, the survivors of partition like his landlady and the driver. The eunuchs, though in the present time are rebuked, they had a stronghold in the days of the emperor; they were a part of the courts, caretakers of the harems. At the Nizam-ud-din mosque, a place thronged by both the rich and the poor, the saints tell WD about the Djinns, their existence since God created man, how they can be captured and used.

Delhi, as WD rightly points out, post the India-Pakistan partition is itself divided into two conspicuous parts; old Delhi sporting the remnants of the Moghul era in bits and pieces and New Delhi, a facade of Lutyens’s brilliant architecture and now a house to the Punjabis. India, always has been an easy country to be besieged because of its religious differences. The bloodbath of partition is a horrific tale where entire villages were annihilated, people burnt alive, women raped – a crowd has no face, or rather has the face of a terror. As Dr. Jaffery, a historian tells WD, “In this city, culture and civilization have always been very thin dresses. It doesn’t take much for that dress to be torn off and for what lies beneath to be revealed.”

            WD’s research is excellent; he presents facets of the city which a tourist would normally miss. If you ever happen to visit the city, sitting on the ramparts of a fort or marvelling the intricate designs of a palace, or being blessed by the saints in one of the mosques, the djinns will most definitely bring to life snippets from this book. And as you relive the glorious incidents of that era, you would shudder at the thought of living under the rule of a monarch.

The worst part about reading history is that it’s almost always a biased, colourful story written by sycophants; WD’s travelogue isn’t that, it is unbiased, written without any obligation or pressure.
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 7/10
Image copyright:
William Dalyrympe


Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt – A book review


Only if life were a story....

But life is a story, isn’t it; every moment lived, of everyone’s life, some glorious, some plain, some recounted by grandparents, some cherished, some not so cherished. Some events make it to the history books, almost often quoted to the best of imperfection; others exist as individual or collective memories.
A historical fiction, Byatt’s story is a mammoth one, a tapestry upon which are woven intricately, colourfully and carefully, a design, a pattern that appeals to the readers for its individual portraits as much as for the entire landscape it creates. It’s a universe where the worlds of fairies, gnomes, sylphs and spirits have as much importance as the flesh and bone of myriad visible humans.
Olive Wellwood is a story teller, a writer rather; a writer of children’s books, a respected and admired one. She writes imaginary stories for each of her children, publishes them to the world; she hunts for her characters in museums, in vases and historical portraits, in puppet shows, in her children. Tom, her favourite son seems to be trapped in his story, hers and can’t get out. Like the prince who lost and can’t find his shadow, Tom seems to be lost and can’t find himself, can’t place himself in the word like everyone else so easily does, or so it seems.
It’s a difficult life for adults, but more so for children, especially the ones getting out of their cocoons of infanthood to find a place in the world. Unlike fawns and calves, we can’t start walking a few minutes after being pushed out of the womb; fortunately or unfortunately, we are humans. We need to be nurtured to get a grip. Who should they imitate, what’s good and what’s not, is it okay to be themselves – a plethora of unguided, often misguided, at times unanswered questions haunt the teenager as every single day proves to be a different one as they saunter towards the path of adulthood. It’s bad to have no options, but worse to have enough of them.
Though at the Wellwood household and the entangled families of their near ones, the children are treated as growing adults and their choices are honoured, the children find themselves at most times in a midden of deception. And in the midst of this treachery, they fall, grope, struggle, rebel to get away. They discover, things that should have been best left to the slothful beast of ignorance; but they do, they discover the frightful things they shouldn’t, that others shouldn’t about them.
Like the vagarious genius of Benedict Fludd and his apprentice Philip, Byatt creates them and her other characters from clay and like their beautifully carved, intricate and meticulous vases and pots, she moulds and shapes them. But the pots don’t be themselves without going through the hearth of the furnace and so does Byatt, put her characters, children and adults alike through the conflagration of life and relationships. Some are broken, some shine like a gilded blaze – a delight to the senses.
At times, it feels like you are reading newspaper excerpts of a bygone era. The Fabians, the Quakers, the Socialists and the Anarchists, the Nihilists, their thoughts, their ideologies and idealism run like veins through the story. Byatt’s canvas is replete with the arts and crafts, puppeteers and their wooden dolls, music and festivals, museums and extravagances, the rustic beauty of the countryside, the wilderness, cultures and their nuances, the dangling sword of war and then the war itself. As is the sagacious disposition of geniuses, in this labyrinth too, the author, like a master puppeteer pulls and loosens the strings of her marionettes to perfection and woos her audience, who keep their hands glued to the page, refrain from letting their eyes to wander and yet let their heart and mind to. The era is one where heterosexuality isn’t abhorred, where age is no barrier, where a single episode of intimate, salacious closeness is forgotten as easily as it happened, though it results in the placement of a seed in a womb; doubtful parentage isn’t disturbing. A girl you treated as your friend, a sister, is asked to be called your mother the next day!
The story also deals with the plight of women of that time, of all times, their fight to their entitlement to suffrage, to individualism, to find their feet in the land of men. As the frustrated Florence says,
“The truth is that the women we are (readying to be doctors, researchers, educated) – have become – are not fit to do without men, or to live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don’t, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters.”
“A woman has to be extraordinary; she can’t just do things as though she had a right.”

A delightful read, Byatt’s characters, their rawness, their eccentricity, their plight, their vagaries, their love, their disgust will stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page. At times, one might feel lost, frustrated with the neglect of a character (there are many), but Byatt ensures that her marionettes are not hanging from the stand for too long – she brings them to life when you think you are on the brink of letting go and moving on, asking, begging for more!
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 8/10
A. S. Byatt