Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The lives of others, by Neel Mukherjee

Before I launch into a report of our discussion, I need to 'fess up that I didn't manage to finish the book in time so if this report doesn't make sense in places I hope others will expand on their ideas in the Comments.

The lives of others is a long book - around 550 pages - and proved to be a challenging read, although not so challenging that we didn't appreciate it. One member "kind of read it twice", while a couple of us didn't quite finish it, not because we didn't want to, we hastened to explain but because we'd misjudged the time we'd need to do it justice.

However, before I elaborate more on our discussion, it might be useful to say a little about its content. The book is set in Bengal in the mid to late 1960s and is essentially the saga of a once well-to-do family. As the novel opens, they live in a four-storey house in South Calcutta. The family comprises the patriarch and matriarch, their five sons/daughters and their respective families. Location in the house is hierarchical, with Purba, the widow of the youngest son, occupying the worst position in the house and treated accordingly. I say "once well-to-do", as the family had made a good living out of business, but things are not going so well by the time the novel opens, which of course adds to the stress in their lives.

A big Indian saga

Most of us enjoyed the book but, as already said, we all admitted to being challenged, though not always for exactly the same reasons. It's not that it's a hard read in terms of language or style, but:

  • we all found it hard to keep all the characters, whose names were not familiar to us, clear in our heads. Some of us didn't find the family tree until part way through the novel, or even until the end. This is what resulted in one of us turning right around and reading it again!
  • the novel is told in two parallel, alternating sequences - a third person story about the family as a whole, and a first person story told by a son of the family who joins a group of socialist activists working to improve the lot of poor farmers. These two sequences are differentiated by font - in the print and kindle versions, but not in the iPad version. Hmm!
  • it contains a LOT of detail, which made it dense reading for some - so much so that a few wondered, briefly at least, whether ALL the detail was necessary.
  • it is harrowing, in parts, particularly in the last 100 pages.

Like most sagas, the novel covers a lot of ground - hierarchical relationships between people (within the family, family and servants, workers and their employers, and so on); gender; religion; political rebellion; the role of education; the increasing distance between the haves and have-nots.

What we liked

We enjoyed the detailed depiction of family life and relationships, and felt that this reminded us of some of the big Russian and English novels of the nineteenth century.

We were impressed by Mukherjee's language and extensive (impressive) vocabulary.

One member shared a favourite quote:

not for the first time it struck Adi that clichés were clichés because they were truths that had been lived out by generation after generation of people before him. By the time those lived truths were inherited by him, they had become foxed, crumpled, brown and brittle with age.

We all liked this description of what happens when cliches, which spring from some sort of truth, outlive their usefulness and in, fact, outlive the truth upon which they were initially built. 

One member found the scenes describing the young socialist men working with farmers in the villages to be among the book's most powerful.

The novel's prologue effectively establishes the idea of inhumanity and inequality as main themes. 

What is it about, or, why did Mukherjee write the novel

We spent a lot of time discussing what we thought the novel was about. Some members felt it offers a pessimistic view of life and that, while it is primarily set in the 1960s, the 2012 epilogue suggests that things have not changed. Others saw it as being more fatalistic, that life is a roll of the dice, with good and bad "chances" or outcomes over which people may not always have a lot of control. While some looked for a "message" or, at least, to understand why Mukherjee wanted to tell the tale, others were happy to see it as a novel which asks questions without attempting to answer them.

We wondered how Indian readers understand the novel. A member shared an Indian critic's review which expressed concern that Mukherjee treated the escape of one "miracle boy" to America through his impressive maths ability as a one-off whereas India, and Bengal in particular, has a long tradition of intellectual achievement in mathematical thinking. What did Mukherjee mean to convey by his two epilogues - one about this escape and the other about a violent terrorist act - in terms of the meaning of the novel?

Another member shared a reviewer's summation that the book is about "the limits of empathy and the nature of political action". This resulted in quite a discussion about empathy in the book, particularly in terms of lack of empathy occurring in many of the characters, including even the so-called more enlightened ones. Political rebel Supratik, for example, showed little empathy for his family. (Is this what political idealism and action can do to people?)

We concluded by discussing this book's shortlisting in 2014 for the Man Booker prize, and that it lost to Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north (our report). Some felt that Mukherjee was by far the more worthy winner due to "flaws" in Flanagan's book, but others argued that both books have their flaws. Whatever the case, I can confirm that our discussion was lively and not always quiet - surely a sign that this was a very good choice for us to read. Now, all I and a couple of others need to do, is finish it!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The strays by Emily Bitto

After a lovely tour of a gorgeous new home we settled down to discuss this month’s read of the debut and award winning novel by Australian author, Emily Bitto,  entitled The strays. 

Discussion began with our opinions of the book. The fairly unanimous opinion was that everyone enjoyed the read. The style of writing and turn of phrase was applauded. However, one or two members thought it was not up to the standard of an award. A couple of us felt it was a ‘little flat’. Too many things were not fully explained.  For instance, why did Lily explore the art scene in later life. (Afterwards I thought it was obvious – Lily associated art with glamour, intelligence and excitement.)

The novel is loosely based on the Bohemian lifestyle of John and Sunday Reed at Heide (a former dairy farm on the outskirts of Melbourne), in the 1930s. The strays novel begins in the thirties.  Sidney Nolan could be the model for Jerome?  Heide is now the Museum of Modern Art of Australia and is a beautiful place to visit.

One of the problems with this book was the implausibility of some of the characters. Lily’s parents were particularly hard to fathom or believe even for the times. They seemed to have a sense of relief that their daughter was not their responsibility. They were very conservative so it was surprising that they could allow their only daughter to live with an artist and his family. We discussed Lily and her feeling of being an outsider. Members of the group could relate to that feeling. One member related her experience of meeting people who she thought were extremely wealthy. They had intelligent  conversation and lots of house guests, and to her it was exciting to be in their company. This was very similar to Lily’s experience with the Trentham family. Lily was only an observer living with these people.  This becomes even more obvious at the end of the book when she was talking to Bea and the others about writing a memoir.

Living with the Trenthams was a life of possibility for Lily.  The house and the huge meals all seemed effortless so different from her lonely boring life with her parents.

One member enjoyed the book but had reservations.   It reminded her of hippie life in Byron Bay where life was full of strays.  Another member was wondering what it was really about – angst of an artistic life or a clash between sensible suburbia and bohemian life.

Another member was very enthusiastic about this book – it reminded her of ‘Brideshead revisited’ and also ‘Atonement’.  She thought it was about family and desire and connection to people, parental responsibility and friendship between girls. One of the good facets of the novel was the way the author describes the cultural isolation (in art terms especially) of Melbourne at the time. The family were living in a bubble.

The Prologue is very important. Here the author talks about the:
heart’s magnetic field …the body’s silent communications with other bodies are unmapped and mysterious …Who knows, what we call instant attraction may be as random as the momentary synchrony of two hearts’ magnetic pulses.
Does this explain Eva and Lily’s friendship, or Lily’s attraction to the whole Trentham family?

Eva’s mother is another interesting character – she is not a sympathetic character and hopeless as a parent. Evan is a bad father. The dinner party conversations (with the extra members of the ‘family’) and their behavior shows how dysfunctional the family really is. No-one is interested in the children.
Bitto explains the relationships between the family members really well and how they are all under stress, and not healthy.

We discussed the girls' relationships – Lily and Bea, the sad and unloved Heloise, and Lily herself –and Jerome, the ‘devil’ in the ‘mix’?  These relationships reminded one reader of a relationship between Jack Thompson and 2 sisters. Apparently there is also an instance of the poet Shelley ‘having’ two young women. According to the Oxford Handbook online Shelley was possibly one of the ‘pro-feminist of the male writers’ of the time. 

Jerome is totally unremorseful, a good artist who was expected to make money. Why did society allow him to get away with ‘taking’ young girls? Why did the family not object sooner? Even if Lily had told would the family have acted sooner? These questions cannot be answered.

The whole episode of Jerome absconding with the girls reminded us of incidents concerning supposed obscene art and photographs of children by Bill Henson which were censored in 2008 by the Labor government. (The exhibition was at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Paddington.) Interestingly, none of us thought that Jerome kidnapped Eva and Heloise, but they presumably went of their own volition. Jerome was 24 and the girls were 15 and 13. This sort of behavior happens. Evan and Helena wanted to keep the community intact and wanted to believe that their life was possible longterm. (It didn’t work for the Reeds for very long either.)

Central to the community idea is that this lifestyle upsets lives – relationships happen which are not meant to happen – Jerome and the girls, especially Heloise. I suppose this is reinforced by Lily’s first marriage to her romantic artist husband which didn’t succeed.  Life was better with her more boring second partner, an economist.

The life of the Trenthams is not a good model for society we decided. It is good to have challenging people around but you had better lock up your daughters. So is the meaning of this book about coming to terms with the past? Lily’s parents’ behavior is inexplicable. The three Trentham daughters lacked boundaries which ruined their lives ultimately.