Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Karo”

Karo’s #CBR4 Review # 26: Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry

While at university, I met Stephen Fry’s German translator. This was (and probably still is) the most exciting, nerdy thing to have happened to me, because I fall squarely into the camp of Stephen Fry worshippers. It was only when I tried to explain to my family how exciting this meeting had been that I realised that it was hard to describe to a bunch of Germans just how amazing Stephen Fry is. He is an actor, yes, but Jeeves and Wooster is not very well known in Germany, and Wilde was… well, just one movie. The whole aspect of him being the intellectual overlord and infuriatingly clever man of Britain does simply not translate. To this day, my parents roll their eyes when I start a sentence with “Stephen Fry says…”. I have read all the novels and The Fry Chronicles, but somehow never got round to reading Moab Is My Washpot. Well, the time has come.

I have only read a handful of autobiographies, because the thought of making the private public in such a manner scares me. Also, there is a significant risk of disliking the author, simply because any justification can so easily be seen as self-important dribble and arrogance. Fry knows that, and he keeps apologising for it. He is acutely aware of how he comes across, so much that sometimes it’s exactly this self-awareness and apologising that made me angry. You just can’t win…

It took me a while to make my peace with this, Fry’s account of the first twenty years of his life. He describes his school days at elementary and boarding schools, the development of his character, talents and vices (again, focussing on the vices), and a slow descend into adolescent angst and crime. He tries his hardest to spell out exactly how deplorable his crimes were, but it’s hard to imagine all this in hindsight. The moment he turns his life around is clearly described, and you feel safe in the knowledge that he will go on to become the great man he is now. Everything before that feels alien and unreal. Or maybe that’s just my impression. Life at boarding school is both terrifying, with the young boy’s fear of sports and the need to lie and be evasive that turns into a real need to lie and steal, but you realise before he decribes it more explicitly that he still mourns the loss of this regulated, carefree school life. Then, of course, sex and love enter the picture, and things get more… intense. It’s been described as a candid book, and there are many, many scenes of an explicit nature, but Fry never strays from his friendly, slightly apologetic and sincere tone. It’s his life, and it is as it is. It’s the moments when he makes a subject into more than a personal anecdote that put me off the book for a while. I have always said that I’d like nothing more than have a long conversation with the man, and make him explain the world to me. Now, I’m not so sure. I just don’t like being lectured, and I beg to disagree, even with Stephen Fry. I can tell you exactly where I started thinking “No! Please don’t generalise here, Stephen!” It is this point of a list of things nobody should be apologetic for:

“To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually attractive.”

No. Just no. I get what he’s saying in regards to schoolboys fancying each other, but paired with his earlier observation that caning pupils is not an act of abuse, every part of me objects. Again, I see how he never considered being caned an abuse, but in my eyes, it is, whether it immediately or in retrospect affects the child or not, an abuse of authority. I find the “age” bit of the above quote incredibly ill-considered. Brrrr.

This nearly ruined the whole book for me. In most aspects, I agree with Fry. He knows stuff, he values language and knowledge. It’s actually quite sobering to realise that even such a great guy says things I cannot agree with. All in all, it’s a pleasure to read. There are so many true things in the book, from childhood terrors to moments of self-realisation and the agonising transformation from the adolescent clarity and immensity of feeling to an adulthood that threatens to bury all that under daily drudgery. The much-used phrase “My whole life stretched out gloriously behind me” sums it up perfectly. So, by all means, read this book. And tell me if you agree.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #25: Novemberasche by Anja Jonuleit

At some point over the last few months I started explaining why I chose each book I read (as if one ever really needs a reason), and with this novel, the backstory is the only interesting bit of my review. I found it on a doorstep, in a box labelled “Take me home” or “Please take”. I knew what I was getting into, since it was clearly marketed as local crime, with a butt-ugly cover, but honestly? How can you not rescue a book from a box on a doorstep? Funnily enough, only a few weeks later a friend asked me whether that was a typical German thing, leaving things you don’t need on your doorstep, and yes, it is. I love it – it’s like a small pop-up charity shop!

I took it home because it was a book (see above) and because I thought it might amuse me for a while. I’ve read local crime a few times before, and in most cases these are a laugh, with the author trying their best to cram in as much local colour as possible while not being particularly skilled in both crime writing and just plain… writing. (Before you hate me – I wrote one myself for NaNoWriMo, and I admit that mine is terrible, too.) Anyway. Novemberasche is set in furthest south-west Germany, an area I don’t know at all, and so the local colour obviously wasn’t meant for me. If anything, the descriptions of endless roads and roundabouts near certain supermarkets made me giggle. Maybe Aldi pays for namedropping in novels.

An amateur sky-diver dies when his parachute doesn’t open, and a high-school student is found dead in a graveyard, his wrists showing marks of barbed wire, and a small piece of paper is found stuffed in his mouth, with only 3 identifiable words. The sky-diver is the brother-in-law of the police inspector on the case, and so both cases are connected before we find out just how connected they are. Which of course is obvious before the book has even started. The inspector now has to deal with his heartbroken sister and her best friend Marie Gl├╝cklich (Yes. Mary Happy.), who OF COURSE has only just recovered from a previous run-in with the same inspector and a crazed murderer (presumably axe-wielding, and presumably called Hans Horrible). It’s all set up so neatly. Oh, and of course Mary Happy and Inspector Sommerkorn (It may sound German, but NOBODY is called Sommerkorn in Germany. It sounds totally made up while trying to be authentic.) are in love. But they can’t find the heart to confess to each other. I forgot what the case was all about. Oh yes, neo-nazi high school students, computer games and helpless parents. It doesn’t matter. We are meant to care about it just as we are meant to care about Mary Happy and her man, only we don’t. In the end, after having been saved by him, Mary-injured-in-hospital suddenly decides she doesn’t want him after all, because he’s “too narrow-minded”. Huh? If that’s supposed to be a romantic cliffhanger, it doesn’t work. Because I don’t care.

Worst of all, Novemberasche isn’t even over-the-top bad. There are no laughs other than the ridiculous names, an escape from a mental hospital, which turns out is just a case of getting up and leaving through the front door, and some very cliche stylistic means. It’s just the kind of book you read quickly and then put in a box on your doorstep.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #24: The Daughter Of Time by Josephine Tey

More crime, but much more charming. This is one of the books my husband has brought home after hearing about it on Radio 4. He never reads them, but thinks I might like them, and I love him and think it’s the most romantic thing ever.

I had never heard about Josephine Tey before, and I don’t know if that’s strange. She died in 1952, so her novels qualify as classics, and, as wikipedia has just told me, The Daughter of Time was voted greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990. I had no idea, and it makes me smile, because there is nothing particularly suspenseful or spooky about it. It’s just… charming. I have a feeling I’m going to use this word a lot in this review.

Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is in hospital with a broken leg, and in order not to go mad, he asks his friends to supply him with mysteries to solve. He ends up with reproductions of portraits of famous people, and is fascinated by the one of Richard III, a famously deceitful, murderous brute of a King, whose face, according to Grant, shows nothing but gentleness and suffering. With the help of a researcher at the British museum, Inspector Grant sets out to solve the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, the young nephews Richard III is said to have killed.

All I know about British history is puzzled together from bits I have read in novels or seen in movies, and this particular episode was mostly unknown to me. For a British reader in 1952, it would have been one of the best-known bits of historical knowledge, I guess, which makes the novel exciting from the start. As it turns out, it’s a joy to read, and quite easy to follow even for the uninitiated (me). It’s a straightforward mystery, with new and astounding facts delivered to Grant’s hospital bed every day, and moving along at a steady pace. Grant is charming (there!), the minor characters are lovely (even better!), and even Richard III turns out to be a good man. Everything about this book made me feel warm and fuzzy; its old-fashionedness (The time it takes to find facts! Old school books have to be ordered or rummaged for in the nurses’ bookshelves, volumes leafed through in the British Museum, telegrammes waited for in hospital… Ah.), the goodwill and friendliness of the characters, the fact that the most recent bloodshed happened in the 15th century… This is a comfort read. The entire Josephine Tey boxset immediately went onto my Christmas wish list. I’ll be the happiest reader for the next few weeks.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #23: So He Takes The Dog by Jonathan Buckley

This cost me 10p in the big library clear-out, and while I was reading it, I went back and forth on whether it was worth more, or perfect as a library book. I’m still undecided.

So He Takes The Dog is the story of how one day, in a quiet southern English town, a homeless man is found dead, and how the police are trying to piece together his life in order to get to the bottom of the crime. Henry had been hanging around town for years, but nobody knew anything about him other than that he was odd, if helpful enough, and seemed to do nothing but walk along the beach and mutter to himself. The police officers in charge quickly realise that finding out anything about such an elusive character’s life is quite difficult. Slowly, they track down the few people who had ever known him, and uncover a secret from Henry’s past that may or may not explain his life and death.

Several things about this novel are strange, some deliberate, some not. It quickly becomes clear that just like there is no coherent backstory for Henry, the plot is a bit of a meandering mess. One officer’s private life slowly moves into the focus of the story, and it never becomes clear why this is. The officer himself does not take the form of an omniscient narrator, but rather talks a bit about himself here, stoically describes the drudgery of day-to-day police work there, slips into his colleague’s head and recounts his memories somewhere else. It’s hard to know who knows what when it takes a while to even establish whose point of view we’re taking. Eventually, I either got used to it, or the plot become more straightforward. In any case, the novel turned into a quick read.

A fulfilling read, or even just a pleasant one, it was not. Not because of any gory details (there weren’t any), or because it turns out the crime is never solved (by the time you realise that, you have stopped caring anyway). The characters just never really come to life, and the emotionless way in which the case is described makes it hard to connect with anyone. I don’t doubt that this is deliberate on the part of the author – the main character does suffer from disillusionment and the realisation that his life has turned sour. Jonathan Buckley has done everything right in his way. The language mirrors the characters’ sense of displacement and a kind of spiritual homelessness – which brings the story full circle. It’s all very neat and interesting, but you can only get through so much coldness before you stop caring altogether. Interesting? Maybe. A book you might like? Probably not.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #22: The Old Silent by Martha Grimes

Although I kept quiet about it in the beginning, so as not to lose too much street cred and to conceal my disappointment, it’s a fact that I came to live in England because of pretty, and pretty damn inaccurate, pictures in my head. Every single one of those pictures was either taken from old Miss Marple movies, Beatles lyrics, Victorian novels or Martha Grimes. I devoured every single one of her novels in my formative years, and even though I’ve been living on this freakishly damp island for almost 8 years now, there are still lots of places in this country that I’ve never been to but feel I know well, simply because Richard Jury once solved some crime there. I think it’s fair to say that Martha Grimes is solely responsible for the slow but constant heartbreak and disillusionment I’ve been suffering. The fact that she herself is not British should have given me a clue back then…

Ever since Richard Jury’s first outing in the 80s, Grimes has been writing a new case for Scotland Yard’s most charming superintendent almost every year. I read them all until a few years ago, when it all went a bit Schroedinger’s cat, and a talking cat at that. (Animals have always played a big part in Grimes’ novels, but recently they have turned into detectives, and Jury, who should be way too old to solve crime and be attractive anyway, is basically drinking wine and pondering parallel universes. Booooring.) And although I’m a literary snob, I am not ashamed to say that I love the Richard Jury novels, and they are much, much more than just detective stories. I chose to re-read them, and started with my favourite, The Old Silent. It’s a bleak book, full of solitary characters walking the Yorkshire Moors, Richard Jury among them. The story of the kidnapped boy and his grieving stepmother is heartbreaking, and nobody really wins in the end, even when the crime is solved. Grimes is a good writer, if a bit too manipulative when it comes to comic relief (she has her own recurring characters for that). Her stories are believable and sad, and her characters stay with you for a long time. Richard Jury is my hero, and although there are too many of them, even the animals and kids are likeable and memorable. I sound like a real child-hater now as well, don’t I? It’s just that if you read those novels without giving it a few months between them, the formula of withdrawn kid/clever dog/only Jury understanding them and solving the crime gets a bit tedious. But really, one should admire a writer who basically pulls off the same novel 24 times in a row, and you still want to read it, love it and live it. Yes, I want to be one of them, I want to live in Long Piddleton with the former Lord Ardry and his mad aunt, have a pint with Richard Jury in a cosy London pub and visit all the places he haunts with his depressive presence. I love the world Martha Grimes has created, and realising that it doesn’t exist still breaks my heart.

In short, go read them all. Stop after the 18th. And then tell me which one is your favourite.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #21: The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

The library chucked this book out and sold it for 10p, and that alone would have been enough to make me take it home (I rescued several other books that day), but Margaret Drabble has been on my to-read list ever since one of my university lecturers declared her important, and the book is pretty, and I’m a sucker for historical fiction. It was set to be a major win, or a real disappointment.

The story is split into three parts: The first part is the memoir of a Korean Crown Princess from the 18th century, whose life was determined by court restrictions, intrigue and the demise of her husband, the Crown Prince. In a twist that might not sit well with readers who like their historical fiction historic, she tells her story posthumously, looking back and analysing her life from a 20th century view point. This takes some getting used to, and disrupts her narrative. (She not only uses the incredibly frustrating “which we will soon see” device to bring the plot to a near-standstill, but tries to explain her husband’s madness with modern vocabulary and ideas.) It becomes clear that this ghost narrator is looking for a modern “vessel” to take an interest in her story and keep it alive. This vessel turns out to be Dr Barbara Halliwell, a middle-aged academic who travels to a conference in South Korea and becomes enthralled with the memoir and its author. The third part then tries to bring the story into postmodernity.

Despite the many unexpected and postmodern elements of the novel, The Red Queen could have still brought the story full circle, with Barbara solving a textual riddle, clearing the Crown Prince’s name or sinking into madness herself. But Margaret Drabble had other plans for her novel, and the words “A Transcultural Tragicomedy” on the title page should be a warning to readers who expect a neat wrapping-up of both stories. I have read a few reviews on goodreads, and most of them were negative, criticising the seemingly unconnected stories and expressing a dislike for Babs Halliwell. And while I, for once!, couldn’t quite get into the historical bit, I thought the modern part was brilliant. It is a tragicomedy, and I haven’t really come across many of those lately. Babs is a complicated woman, with a tragic past and a familiar-sounding mix of self-confidence, pride even, and self-doubt. Although seemingly narrated by the guardian angels of the Princess’s story (just go with it), her story is the part of the novel that comes alive. It’s a strange story of a very ill-fated love affair in an completely alien land, with a very vague connection to the first part of the book. Although the last pages try to make that connection, it feels a bit laboured. The writing is beautiful though, and some of the utterances and descriptions of Babs’ lover made me laugh, they were so improbable and over-the-top, but as a tragicomedy, they are genius.

I can see how The Red Queen can leave you feeling cheated and annoyed. It’s a strange book that takes even stranger paths to get its message across. I don’t know if I even got the message (there is a lot of potential for discussion about transculturalism, postmodernism, memory, age, feminism, loneliness, madness and literature, which explains why my professor loved Margaret Drabble), but I loved going along with the story. To me, in a way, it all made perfect sense.

Karo’s #CBR4 Reviews #18, 19, 20: “Der Metzger muss nachsitzen”, “Der Metzger sieht rot” and “Der Metzger bricht das Eis” by Thomas Raab

Since I already reviewed one book of the series, most of the general information is out there, so it makes sense to cram all three books into one review.
Once started on this Austrian detective series, neither me nor my sister could stop reading, and so we spent our summer devouring all the missing titles. I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: Thomas Raab is a master of language. He’s overdoing it, but in such a clever way that you don’t mind it all. Willibald Adrian Metzger is a loveable anachronism (even in Austria, which in the eyes of a German person generally seems quite eccentric with its funny dialect and odd little words – and there you have your German/Austrian stereotyping in a nutshell, you’re welcome). He takes it slow, works as a restorer, doesn’t own a mobile phone and is still getting used to accomodating the woman of his dreams in his life. But bad things keep getting in his way, and he muddles his way through them.
In Der Metzger muss nachsitzen, the first in the series, Willibald’s best-forgotten past catches up with him, in the shape of his old school bully. While trying to help his detective classmate solve the case, der Metzger needs to confront his past, which he’d rather not, but he comes out stronger and with the woman of his dreams by his side. What sounds like a classic storyline is very funny, sweet and at times critical. All in just the right amount.
Der Metzger sieht rot sees Willibald in a surrounding that is definitely not his cup of tea: As a witness to death and intrigue on the football pitch. Dragged into the underbelly of modern football culture by his beloved, he gets into mortal danger while having to deal with Danjela’s near-death. Once again, there’s a slowness and deliberation to Metzger’s journey that is quite intriguing and sweet. In this novel, though, Raab’s criticism of society, morals and politics is being voiced much more clearly, and the novel makes for a much darker read with an ending that would fit any contemporary thriller.
Raab’s latest offering, Der Metzger bricht das Eis, is set in yet another part of Austrian life: A ski resort. When a homeless person saves a child’s life in front of Willibald’s eyesand is later found murdered, the reluctant hero takes his friends to the ski resort that seems to be connected to the dead man. Much danger and hilarity ensues, a family history is revealed and another one exposed, and der Metzger gets in more trouble than is good for his or his reader’s nerves. All in a day’s work.
It’s probably just as well I’m out of Metzger novels for now, because it is possible to get enough after a few books. They are brilliant in themselves, but any crime series runs the risk of seeming a bit too formulaic after a few books, so it’s a good idea to take a break. Also, and this is something I’ve had to deal with in a few novels before (although everyone I’ve told this assured me it was just me): Willibald Adrian Metzger is just too perfect. He’s not, of course, but Raab does such a good job of making him likeable, I found myself feeling unworthy. This perfect teddy bear of a man is just so good, and he likes just the right things and despises all the bad things that I just can’t help but have in my life (mobile phones, a love of talking and occassional bouts of silliness, and not-so-well-defined political views). After two books, I felt that while I’d love to meet Willibald in real life, he would not choose to hang out with me. And that made me sad. Am I really alone in feeling that way, faced with literary heroes?

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #17: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is a long book, and I’ve spent a lot of time with it over the last weeks, so it’s only natural that I should be a bit obsessed with it now, 5 minutes after finishing it. But it’s more than that. It made me see history and humanity in a new light. It made me want to read moremoremore of it. It made me think about how I had seen this book on the library shelf for years, without knowing ALL THIS was in it. Why didn’t I pick it up earlier?

Having read Jacob de Zoet, I knew what to expect from Mitchell’s writing, but I wasn’t prepared for the scope of Cloud Atlas. In six individual stories, it spans centuries. Starting from the 19th century in the South Pacific to the (likely) end of Civilisation in Hawaii after a nuclear holocaust, the vastly differing styles of texts and writing are connected only by their narrators’ passing reference to the story before, and their subject of power and humanity. All this sounds quite abstract, but there is no other way of putting it without giving too much away.

On a literary level, the differences in style made it difficult for me at first. Each narrative is beautifullly crafted in itself, but the abrupt endings confuse – and are meant to. It was interesting, and not altogether surprising, to see which style and setting I was more comfortable with. Those parts set in the past won me over immediately, whereas the two chapters set in 1970s California and present-day Britain were (and are) my least favourites. The big surprise for me was that I was blown away by the more sci-fi chapters set in an unspecified future. This is a genre I would never choose to read, but I enjoyed it a lot. The most powerful account, in my opinion, is that of Zachry, who witnesses humanity’s last bastion in Hawaii being blown to bits by barbaric tribes. It forms both the end of the timeline and the middle of the book, which then brings all the stories full circle. Going back from the depressing end of civilisation to the equally barbaric deeds of our own forefathers makes for a clever literary device as well as for enlightened reading. Mitchell is a master of language, and all of Cloud Atlas is fictional and, as such, highly manipulative. But for most people, it will simply ring true. There is a hell of a lot of stuff to ponder in this book, and Mitchell is not afraid to put things up for discussion that influence the fate of humanity, i.e. the lust for power, compassion, barbarism and guilt. Although most of the characters in the novel at some point mention those subjects openly, it never feels as if Mitchell is hammering them home. His different narrators are too well constructed to be mere opinion-makers.

Cloud Atlas is one of those books that makes me want to be a better person. I adored it on a literary level just as much as I agree with the sentiments the characters expressed. I want to buy several pretty copies of it and place them all over the house, just so I don’t forget about the experience of holding this book. And most of all, I do NOT want to see the movie, because the pictures I have in my head are far, far prettier than that picture of Tom Hanks with stuff on his face.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #16: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

After having published a number of very well-received novels (none of which I had read when I picked up Jacob de Zoet), David Mitchell wrote this as his first all-out historical novel. Now, it’s easy to be all snobbish about something that makes you think of costume dramas full of swooning maidens in lavish dresses, but to be honest, most of my favourite books are historical. And novels. So there.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has it all: the incredibly removed setting (Nagasaki in the early 19th century), the multitude of characters (and each one gets the chance to elaborate on his or her story), and a lot of adventure. But it’s so much more than the sum of those parts, because the critics and the rest of the world were right: David Mitchell is a very, very good writer.
The story begins in 1799, when Jacob de Zoet, a clerk working for the Dutch East Indian Company, arrives in Dejima, Japan’s only trading post with the outside world. While working for a corrupt boss in an equally corrupt environment trying to make the best of the economic collapse of the company, Jacob falls in love with Miss Aibagawa, a midwife studying under the island’s doctor. Their love is doomed, of course, but Jacob’s struggles in this strange little world are so captivating, and the writing is so poetic, that the action-film sequences of a damsel in distress in the middle part of the book somehow don’t seem overdone.
While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a captivating story that makes you read into the small hours of the morning, it takes its time to elaborate and ponder. Jacob, on behalf of every reader, struggles with the big questions in life: power, morals, religion, progress, love, loyalty and bravery. We learn about midwifery, Japanese moral codes, all kinds of diseases and British warships. And all of this is held together by Mitchell’s way with words. His language is rich and poetic, and every subject he touches gets treated in a way that makes it interesting, without sounding patronising. It’s the poetry that stuck with me most, and even before the breathtaking chapter set in the Magistracy, which reads like a poem, I marked a few sentences like a lovelorn teenager devouring romantic poems. “She hears the ancient hush of falling snow” is my favourite of the many, many beautiful sentences in this book.
I don’t want to imagine the work that must have gone into the research for this novel alone, especially since Mitchell knows Japan, but to my knowledge has no connection to the Netherlands or the Dutch language. As a translator, I was a bit uneasy about this aspect at first: The Dutch residents’ language is highly individualised, and each speaker has their own slang, complete with faulty declination and word-formation. This is a clever device that must have made Mitchell’s work even more difficult, but since the novel is written in English, and the characters are Dutch, those sequences feel somehow translated, although they obviously never were Dutch in the first place. It took me a while to relax and see the slang as just this, rather than an over-the-top attempt to translate peculiarities of the language. (Translators and their struggles feature heavily in the novel, which makes me love the book anyway.) I’m sure nobody but me had this problem, so I can give my 5 stars and declare this book my new favourite of all time. It’s love.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #15: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

When you fall in love with an author, it’s a great feeling knowing that there is a whole back catalogue waiting for you. The Hungry Tide was to be My Big Summer Read, but it’s a lot shorter than the Ibis books, and I got a lot more reading done than just this one…

The setting of the novel alone is a thing of beauty. The story is told against the backdrop of the Sundarbans (Google it! With pictures!), an archipelago of islands half submerged by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Ghosh’s descriptions of the nature of those islands are beautiful, and even when you realise that the action takes place in the present, it still feels mysterious and as far removed from modern life as possible. Here, two strangers meet. Kanai Dutt is travelling to Lusibari from Delhi in order to help his aunt sort out some paperwork of his long-deceased uncle. He has been to the Sundarbans before and knows what to expect, but still struggles with the contrast of his middle-class existence in the capital and the hardships his aunt and her village suffer. He is immediately atteacted to his fellow traveller Piya Roy, who is of Indian descent, but grew up in the U.S. She has come to study the local variety of river dolphin, and although she does not speak Bengali, she is determined to get her observations under way. She promises an eager Kanai to visit him in Lusibari, and finds a local fisherman, Fokir, to take her. Although they can barely communicate, Piya is drawn to Fokir, who seems the impersonation of the uneducated, hard-working, yet happy villager. But things are not as simple as Piya or Kanai expect, and the Sundarbans are a place where nature takes terrifying forms…

While I enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s writing and loved the setting of the novel, the story left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s a pretty straightforward almost-love story that ends in a predictable tragedy, and I would have expected more of Ghosh. On the other hand he again crammed a ton of information in a relatively short book. Each subject is fascinating in itself, be it the story of the Gangetic river dolphin, local folklore or recent history of the Sundarbans. But taken together, the book seemed too short for such a wealth of information. I had the feeling that in order to make space for facts, Ghosh neglected his characters a bit. Both Kanai and Piya in parts are mere stock characters – the scientist with very little experience in matters of the heart, the mundane heartbreaker who is a bit too full of himself. Fokir was the most interesting character of the lot but remained, literally, silent for the most part.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. But it felt a bit like Ghosh was aiming higher and ran out of energy, or time. His more recent novels achieve their goals. This one seems to me like an exercise, the preparation for bigger things to come.

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