Monday, September 24, 2012

The Little Bee by Chris Cleave

This is the second novel by Guardian Columnist Chris Cleave (his first book ‘Incendiary’ about an Al Qaeda attack came at the time of the London tube bombings). Published as ‘The Other Hand’ in Britain, it has a blurb guaranteed to reel in the undecided-

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book.
It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you will need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again—the story starts there….
Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.

Little Bee has a brilliant opening, set in a government holding pen for illegal aliens facing deportation, where ‘Little Bee’ our eponymous and feisty heroine-protagonist # 1 makes the memorable line that launches the narrative-

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl.

There is some follow up stuff about the currency of money vis-a-vis that of an African girl, which does not live up to the promise of that first line, but hey, the book was on the New York Times Bestseller list, was nominated for the Commonwealth Best Book of the Year, the opening and the blurb have started you thinking about Sophie’s choice, and this and that and all that, so you sort of will yourself to enjoy the first chapter. It is not bad, peppered with clever lines (...Scars don’t form on the dying. A scar means I survived) and attractive characters- a gregarious Jamaican stereotype who springs our heroine from the detention centre along with a couple of other detainees - a loony Aishwarya-Rai look-alike (stereotype number 2?), and a woman whose raving insanity manifests itself as soon as they are out of incarceration. Somewhere after the second chapter, the book gets down to the business of story-telling.

The drab detention centre and its colourful detainees are quickly discarded, their bait function performed, and we are introduced to heroine-protagonist number 2, the thoughtful alpha woman who has it all but always wants more. The slide into Pret-Lit Cornyland is swift from here. Idyllic flashbacks into an African village, cinematic villains, chases, torture, electrical engineer baddies who walk away into the sunset, magazines being put to bed, every trick in the book is thrown at us, drowning out a reasonable plot, and to be fair, good writing. For after those initial pages, the book does fall flat.

Chris Cleave
So I sat down to wonder why it did not work for me. My thesis is that Mr. Cleave is unable to inhabit adequately, the characters of the protagonists, and for a book written in alternating first person accounts, this is a disaster. Perhaps in an effort to be precise and concise (and meet a deadline), the author has neglected to draw full and sympathetic characters. I disliked Sarah and was indifferent to Little Bee. When I realised that Mr Cleave did not have much first-hand experience of Little Bee’s world, it was all very clear. Only the characters of the men made sense (white men let me add, for I did not get the Nigerian villain-philosopher who preens himself on his knowledge of English suburbia). The book might have retained a kernel of truth if it had been from the perspective of Sarah’s tortured husband Andrew.

I read fiction to understand some truths. I believe fiction presents truth indirectly. It entertains when it engages honestly with our fears and our desires. When it does not, it is purposeless and soulless. So is Little Bee.

This book is about two hundred pretty pages of unmet expectations. It is similar to but better than Andrew Miller’s Snowdrops, which I have reviewed elsewhere in this blog.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tinkers by Paul Harding

‘Tinkers’ is a book about people different from book lovers. People who do not articulate their feelings, or think through their angst. If they delight in the beauty and grandeur of nature or take pleasure in the company of their loved ones, they do not resort to painting or poetry; they would instead fashion appreciation with their hands. So a trapper whittles a stick into a figure, while a village woman strings flowers in a pattern of her own devising. These are people working at mediums that are far from romantic. And the constraints of leisure and energy have stripped away any flamboyance from their activity. They are tinkers, tinkering when they can, at materials available to them, and the enforced economy and precision of this very circumstance imbues their work with a grace that elevates it beyond art. That might be one way of looking at Tinkers.

Or we could say that Paul Harding, in his 2010 Pulitzer winner, examines the art hidden in all craftsmanship, the artist inside every artisan. He sings for the unsung and inarticulate artist, describing with the same precision and economy and sympathy, an exquisite frame of reeds and flowers woven by a grateful epileptic for his tired wife, in a different time a clock lovingly put back by the versed hands of this man’s son, or many years later a young man giving his dying grandfather a shave he craves. He tries to get inside their minds and although I am not sure he succeeds, what he conveys fascinates.

Paul Harding
I have always been bad with my hands, never learning to knit or crochet or draw kolam patterns. I relied on my analytical and conceptual abilities to tide over workshop and Drawing in Engineering College. I prefer cleaning to cooking, and it is the hair salon always- I don’t even have a hair dryer for my long hair. So maybe I am not skilled in navigating expert systems, but hang on, reading Tinkers evoked in me the state of exaltation I entered into when I was learning Mandarin- or when I filled out reams of paper in high school with my best handwriting, never mind the prose. You could call it the pleasure of accomplishment. Yes calligraphy could have been my skill… But coming back to the book, yes, Paul Harding succeeds in creating with his pen that state of pure and ecstatic concentration that a craftsman becomes.

Tinkers also tells a story, the story of George Washington Crosby, an old man who lies dying in his living room, surrounded by a wonderful and loving if normal and functional family. Harding dives right into the dying man’s mind and immediately we are made aware that he is a carpenter, a clock-worker, an engineer, a tinker par excellence. But while old George Crosby is still in tune with his calling, his dying mind returns again and again to memories of his epileptic father, Howard. These personal recollections are interspersed by an authorial account of Howard Crosby’s life, a life of hardship and betrayal and lucky breaks. The novel is thus exquisitely crafted, weaving together a superb countdown to old George Crosby's end - including anecdotal reminiscences and everyday concerns as well as the daydreams and delusions of an ill man- with flashbacks to a different era dotted here and there with present time authorial notes of interest. Reading the book was like experiencing a curiosity, a post-modern product that takes stream-of-consciousness writing and sets it on its head. Stream of consciousness suggests a gurgling brook, speedily making progress, but Harding will not delineate thought, he has made the point that the mind jumps about randomly in space, making ever more lovely points.

However time moves and a story needs be told and here Harding is in control, keeping us hooked despite his fascinating departures and his absorption in the discontinuous and particularized nature of our musings. We are treated to glimpses of lives led, of fathers who fly when their hearts break, of sons who sympathize, of the redemptive power of tinkering. There is a story there for fiction junkies like me who will wade through text on ‘How to Make a Bird’s Nest’ describing exactly that, before we can find out what happens next. You may or may not choose to do so, although these departures make for  rewarding reading. If you like the book, but find yourself unable to finish it, put it down and take it up later. Or is there something like too clever, too crafted? Why am I not surprised that Paul Harding has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop or that he taught writing at Harvard? I suppose it is all a function of where you are when you pick up the book. If it does not do the trick for you, pick up Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, (translated from Norwegian). More story, better suspense and fewer descriptions of mechanical activity.

At any rate Tinkers is a paean in lyrical prose to the inarticulate craftsman. Keep it in your Kindle, so you can dip into it from time to time. An interesting book.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Two poems

These poems appeared - along with many other works of many many others- in The Brown Critque, May'12 issue.

Kalpattu - Stoneville

My forefathers’ home
Fine and Mild
On a winter morn
Grey-blue hint of chill
Wet earth and wood smoke
Tang of bullock dung
And they- up at crack of dawn
To toil for the broken tough.
Ignore their iron cladding
For the ducks are coming
A flock waddling,
Up our street, toward the pond
Feast your eyes on this lively sight
Before they vanish into the dust
Gone, and the day not done.


This morning red ants
Swarmed in my silver cup
Of rice flakes and jaggery.
My offerings to the Lord
Not eaten last night
Or put away in the fridge.
Three rusty mustard grains
Lightly touching
Balanced on six fine hairs
Intuited feelers
Moving in a Maglev train
Is one Red ant.
I want them off.
Disturbed they break ranks
Are everywhere
And more appear
A red angry seething
Or a panicked scrambling
Over my sacred fare.
Which I leave under the sun
For the distant fire to scare
And return to find them
Gone but still there
Behind sweet sweating rocks
Under shades of white lace
I tap the cup twice and the
Earthquake stirs them out
Scurrying over scalding silver
For the haven of dry hand
Clutching for clemency
In this roiling, boiling land
Hold cup aslant under tap
Tilt away from the flow
And they wash into the drain
Swimming their way
Into… oblivion.
I only wanted a cooling off.
What was I thinking?
Bhavani Krishnamurthy