Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere: Stories by Sindya Bhanoo

“The memory of the past, the futility of the future, it leaves her breathless.”

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere presents its readers with a well-crafted collection of short stories mapping the paths of those who leave and those who are left behind. Set in America and southern India these narratives explore the realities of leaving one’s homeland behind, generational and cultural rifts, loneliness and connectedness, family and belonging. The first story, “Malliga Homes,”, which was selected by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for an O. Henry Prize, strikes the perfect balance between bittersweet and unsentimental. The narrator is a widow living in a retirement community in Tamil Nadu. She tells us that like most of the residents of Malliga Homes, she is there because she has lost her child to ‘Foreign’. Kamala, her daughter, is the one who pushed her into ‘joining’ this community. She lives in America with her husband and child and has not visited the narrator in years, and in fact, keeps postponing and delaying her next visit. The author captures the microcosm that is this community, where parent(s) seem to outdo each other when it comes to their children’s achievements and how close they are to them. The unaffected style really gives the narrative a rich sense of realism and results in a subtle yet resonant short story. Throughout this collection the author mines similar themes: characters struggle to reconcile themselves to their past actions or are forced to reassess the past; they may long and yearn for the ‘what-ifs’ of the roads not taken; they flit between hope and regret; they desire a place and a people they can belong to. The more effective stories are the ones that focus on a particular period phase of a character’s life whereas the ones that did not quite succeed in reeling me in were the ones that attempted to cover too much of a character’s life. In these instances, the author isn’t quite able to achieve the rich in detail storytelling that she showcases in her more concise stories, where we glimpse a day or a week in a character’s life (rather than their whole life).
Nevertheless Seeking Fortune Elsewhere is a promising debut and I really loved the author’s understated yet incisive writing style.

some quotes:

“We were in that stage of life and motherhood that is filled with fatigue, unimaginable to the young, forgotten by the old, unknown altogether to those without children.”
“The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.”

“The time between childhood and old age passes quickly, leaving you feeling like your entire life is a double feature with no intermission.”

“What our children do, how much money they make, whether our grandchildren are bright or mediocre—all of this matters. It is a tragedy to have a brilliant child and a dunce of a grandchild.”

“[F]or all the space and privacy that America offers, it is a country that longs for life. You go for a drive and the road is endless.”

“He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language.”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Previously to reading Thrity Umrigar’s Honor I’d read another novel with the same title and subject matter. Both books make for harrowing reads, however, whereas I found Elif Shafak’s more thoughtful tone to be more appropriate to the subject fitting, here, well, Umrigar’s undermines her social commentary by throwing into the mix a rushed romantic subplot, a series of blatant plot points and coincidences, an abundance of mawkish metaphors, and one too many cartoonish side characters.

At first, I found Umrigar’s Honor to be a rather gripping read as it promised to be an unflinching story tackling honor killings, Islamophobia, discrimination, and misogyny. The novel switches between two perspectives: Smita, an Indian American journalist who left India at a young age after a traumatic experience, and Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. Meena has survived an attack that her husband did not. Her brothers, alongside other men from their community, tried to burn her alive. Now Meena and her newborn live with her mother-in-law who is resentful of her, blaming her for her son’s horrific death. Smita is given this story after her colleague is hospitalized. Initially, Smita isn’t too keen on this as she’s very uneasy about returning to India. A friend of her colleague becomes her travel companion. While she’s initially reluctant about his presence she quickly discovers that travelling alone is inadvisable.
Smita interviews Meena and learns the details of her vicious attack. She later on also interviews her brothers and a powerful man in their Hindu community. While they deny their involvement it is clear that they were not only responsible but have no remorse about having murdered their sister’s husband and disfigured her. Smita’s feelings towards India are repeatedly challenged by her companion who forces her not to dismiss a whole country on the basis of the actions of some. As Smita witnesses how Meena is treated by her mother-in-law and learns of how she was treated by her brothers, she becomes aware of her the privilege she carries being Indian American. Still, as a woman, she’s also exposed to the misogyny that is rampant in Meena’s community. Umrigar doesn’t paint Smita as a hero and I appreciated that sometimes, even when she’s trying to help someone, her actions do not have the desired consequences. In this way, I was reminded of The Far Field, another novel that is very much about privilege and guilt.
I did find Meena’s chapters to be a bit…condescending of her? Her vocabulary also struck me as inconsistent. Her chapters are in English for our eyes only, in reality, she’s speaking a dialect of Marathi, right? So why do her chapters occasionally seem to play up that she’s not well-spoken? Only for then to use complex sentences or allegories that really stood out in comparison to the rest of her narration? I don’t know…it seemed to me that the author was going to great lengths to portray Meena as this ‘simple’ village girl and it kind of annoyed me.
Smita also had her fair share of incongruities. For one, she claims to be good at her job yet she behaves really unprofessional. She tells off her companion, Mohan, for getting ‘emotional’ during one interview but she repeatedly does the same thing. She makes some really poor decisions and her line of questioning struck me ineffective.
For the majority of the narrative, the author does demonstrate her knowledge and insight into her story’s various subject matters (honor killings, religious conflicts, cultural and class divides). However, I did find her execution soap-operasish. At times her language, as well as her imagery, struck me as hackneyed, for example, “Smita could see the awful, irregular geometry of Meena’s face as past and present, normalcy and deformity, beauty and monstrosity, collided.” I also found it a bit predictable that Smita’s ‘past’, which has made her feel so conflicted about India, echoes in some ways Meena’s situation.
The pacing is fairly slow and I did not entirely understand why Meena’s chapters were even included given that, if anything, they made her relationship with her husband seem very rushed and random. The guy basically sees her once or twice while they are working and declares his undying love for her. His naivete about the fact that she’s Hindu and he is Muslim also struck me as a bit…unconvincing. I mean, he isn’t a child nor a hermit who is wholly unaware of his country’s political or social climate.
While the hearing’s result did strike me as sadly believable, I did find that section of the narrative somewhat rushed and illogical. Smita’s decision not to do something seemed a clear choice on the author’s part to force her character to feel guilty and haunted, indebted to stay in India. Smita’s relationship with Mohan also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a bit insensitive to have it so soon after yet another horrific plot point. The whole finale was corny, extremely so, and I hated how illogical it all was. Even if you have the character point out how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ they are by believing that they have just been given a ‘sign’ from above, it still doesn’t make it believable to have that character uphold their lives because of that random sign. The secondary characters were very one-note, the majority of them are horrible, ignorant, or a combination of the two things. Most of the Indian female characters, with the exception of Meena, are really nasty to Smita for no good reason. I didn’t understand the point of her American colleague, Shannon, either. Her translator, Nandini, also served no purpose other than having scenes where Smita thinks her devotion to Shannon is’ weird’, and in a very childish manner wonders whether she’s in love with her. Grow up Smita, ffs.
Sadly, while I appreciate that the author has tackled such important issues, I found her storytelling to be too…shall I say, ‘book-clubby’ for my taste. I did like that at the end she makes a point of stating how absurd it is that ‘honor’ killings are referred to as such when there is truly nothing honorable about them.

my rating: ★★½

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Cheesy, boring, poorly executed. While there is indeed a murder and the identity behind the culprit is, supposedly, a ‘mystery’, The Widows of Malabar Hill struck me as something in the realms of a third-rate period drama. The first part of the novel introduces us to Perveen Mistry, our protagonist, and works to establish the setting, which is 1920s Bombay. While the author succeeds in depicting the realities of colonialism, of being female in India at this time in history, and in providing her readers with some degree of insight into Zoroastrian and Muslim traditions, the setting wasn’t particularly vivid. There are some info-dumpings now and again which read like something straight out of a textbook (aimed at younger audiences due to the dumbing down of certain facts). Anyway, Perveen’s family is Zoroastrian and has begun working at her father’s law firm. Being the only, or one of the first, female lawyers in India comes with many challenges but thanks to her father’s endless belief in her capabilities and her law degree from Oxford Perveen feels ready for what’s in store. She becomes involved with the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a well-off Muslim man who had three wives. As these recently widowed women reside in a purdah, a secluded and strictly, children aside, strictly female space, Perveen is the ideal go-between. Perveen is worried that they are being taken advantage of as they seemed to have signed over their inheritance. We also read of Perveen’s British friend Alice who has returned to India after spending time abroad.
The flat if occasionally ridiculous writing (at one point Perveen is telling someone not to touch her briefcase and instead of having her ‘shout’, to indicate her panic, this happens: “It’s mine!” she bleated. what is she? a goat?!) was bearable but the slow-moving plot was a chore to get through. When the murder finally happens we get a flashback related to Perveen’s past lasting 50+ pages or so that bares little revelance to what had so far happened. The author paints a sloppy picture of an abusive marriage which seemed very much soap opera material. The abusive husband is one of the most one-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in a while, and that’s saying something.

Perveen is portrayed as Not Like Other Girls because she’s smart and interested in the law. The murder mystery is a mere blip in this melodrama-driven narrative. We don’t even get to spend that much time with the widows and their characters suffer because of it. The last scene was pure cheese (“To the power of women!” Alice toasted. “To the power of women” Perveen answered as their glasses clinked.).
I was hoping that this would be something in the realms of Agatha Christie or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but this book was anything but. It was more focused on Perveen’s married life and it wasted a lot of page-time in rehashing how it started and how it ended. As I found the author’s general delivery to be dry I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or that was being recounted. Perveen grated on my nerves as she acted without thinking and did not strike me as particularly clever or caring. Alice’s personality was being English and gay. Perveen’s mother plays barely a role in the story, her father is largely overlooked, and her uni friends we briefly meet in that first flashback, well, they were mere background figures.
If you are interested in reading this I recommend you check out more positive reviews. I, for one, will be giving its sequels a large berth.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

“People always say time stands still, and it really is that, you know. You find the thing you love the most, and time will stop for you to love it.”

A few months ago I read and loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk so I was quite looking forward to The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing as I happen to have a penchant for family dramas. And, at first, I was actually quite taken by it. The family dynamics Jacob sets up were complex & compelling and the ‘mystery’ surrounding Akhil’s death, Amina’s career change, and Thomas’ ‘weird’ behaviour, well, they moved the narrative forward.
The story alternates between chapters set in the 90s where we become acquainted with Amina, a wedding photographer who receives a worrying call from her mother, Kamala, about Thomas, Amina’s father. According to Kamala, Thomas is unwell. An anxious Amina flyers to her hometown where she learns that Thomas seems in perfect health. As days go by and after speaking to some of his father’s colleagues Amina is forced to recognise that her mother may not have been exaggerating after all. The other chapters instead give us insight into Amina’s childhood from a holiday gone awry that she took with her parents and brother to India to visit relatives to her experiences growing up in New Mexico. In these chapters, we see a lot of Akhil and come to learn of the events that led to his death.
As I says, initially I found Jacob’s storytelling engaging. Amina was a flawed but sympathetic main character and the various secrets related to her family added a layer of intrigue to her narrative. Things sadly fell apart midway through. I found the story much too repetitive. By then I’d already guessed what had happened to Akhil and what was going on with Thomas but the story keeps delaying these ‘reveals’. Large chunks of the story were just filler, often consisting of the same two or three characters having the same type of conversation or, more often than not, argument. Boy, do the characters in this story like to squabble. It just so happens that their fights did very little for me as it seemed to serve no purpose (we don’t gain much insight into those characters, nor does the fight further or add to the plot, nor does it drastically change things for anyone). Amina’s ‘photographer’ storyline was quite disappointing as Jacob doesn’t really delve into her photography that much. We learn of two ‘pivotal’ photos she’s taken and that’s it. I wanted more passion, more sections detailing her technique or what she feels towards photography (as Rachel Lyon does in her magnificent Self-Portrait with Boy, which also involves the photo of someone falling to their death…but unlike Jacob’s novel, it has depth). I didn’t understand why the characters behaved the way they did, nor did I really get the point of all the ‘sleepwalking’ and possible ‘hauntings’. Amina spends the majority of the whole novel wondering if her father is sick, when she has an answer the focus goes to her romance with a generic white man she knew during her teens, before presenting us with a rushed ending that is meant to provide some sort of answer/resolution for her dad’s situation…but doesn’t really.
I grew to dislike Amina, especially when she comes out with stuff like this: “Why does everyone think I dress like a man?” “Like a sandal. Or a flat.” “I just don’t like dresses. It’s not like I’m some transvestite.” (her response here makes no sense); or this “The blue button-down made her look like a high school lesbian” (this is the kind of remark that if its made by someone who like in amina’s case is not part of the lesbian nor lgbtq+ community…well); or this: “she remembered their first kiss, how strange and eager they had both been, like two mutes trying to describe a freak storm” (ugh).
After she shows up at her love interest’s place and they have sex initiated by her he comes up with this, “I think,” Jamie said that evening, his heart thundering under her ear, “you just raped me.”
to which she replies something along the lines of “you seemed into it”. Yikes.
The comments Amina makes about ‘lesbians’, ‘transvestites’, and ‘mutes’, well, they were completely unnecessary. Amina is presented to us as the ‘modern’ counterpart to her parents, someone who is relatable and isn’t necessarily interested in getting married. Except that she actually wants to but ‘trauma’ has made her believe she isn’t worthy and yadda yadda. What a clichè.
I didn’t care for the story’s melodramatic overtones. The whole thing surrounding Akhil’s death was just too OTT for me. He just wasn’t a particularly believable character and came across more like a caricature than anything else. Amina went from being a relatable character to someone I could not get behind. Later in the narrative, her cousin and alleged bff breaches her privacy and trust. Instead of calling her out, the narrative makes her actions seem good because Amina’s ‘true work’ can finally be celebrated. Instead of giving her hell Amina just lets her friend manipulate her into going along with this.
Amina’s parents were portrayed as very volatile, and their constant sniping, wild mood swings, and erratic behaviour made it hard for me to get to grips with them. Especially when what they said or did was played up for laughs.
I’m sure other readers won’t be as offended as I was by some of the content in this novel so I recommend you read more positive reviews before making your mind up. Given how much I liked Good Talk, it is safe to say that I am deeply disappointed by Jacob’s debut novel.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is a small gem of a memoir. Jacob combines different media to discuss a number of issues and topics. Jacob transports to the page the difficult conversations she’s had with her son about race, while also recounting her own experiences growing up as a first-generation Indian-American.

Much of Good Talk takes place against the 2016 election, which doesn’t necessarily make for easy or enjoyable reading material, especially when we discover that her white in-laws are Trump supporters. Jacob struggles to ‘gloss’ over their political stance, especially when her son begins asking difficult questions about Trump and racism. While her husband, who is white, also struggles to make sense of his parents’ behaviour he does at times minimise Jacob’s experiences with discrimination and racism (chalking these episodes to misunderstandings or claiming that supporting someone who is openly racist and misogynistic doesn’t mean you are those things too). While many of the conversations that are depicted in Good Talk have to do with America (or at least view these topics through an American lens) certain, Jacob does also touch upon colorism in India.
In addition to discussing Trump and 9/11, Jacob also gives us insight into her private life, from talking about her family to her experiences moving in predominantly white spaces and to the everyday microaggression that results from that. The dialogues populating this memoir always rang true to life, so much so, that I felt as if I was truly listening to people talking. While Jacob does discuss serious topics, such as racism, sexism, islamophobia, discrimination, colorism, she often injects humor in these discussions. I especially loved her talks with her son and her parents. I’d happily revisit this and I’m looking forward to reading more from Jacob.
Candid, thought-provoking, and ultimately moving Good Talk is a quick read that is a must-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Throughout the course of reading The Archer, I was painfully aware that I was in fact reading a novel. That is to say, I did not think this was a particularly ‘immersive coming-of-age’ story, quite the contrary. Almost every line I read struck me as contrived and as attempting (and failing) to be eloquent and adroit. This novel reads like something that should have stayed in drafts or that would have been okay if it had been some sort of MFA project. The verbose and trying-too-hard-to-be literary language was distracting and unimaginative. The main character and her environment felt inconsequential, the narrative more intent on showing off its supposedly ‘lyrical’ prose (which, you guessed it, in my eyes, was anything but). Banal, shallow, and repetitive ​​ The Archer was not for me. If you enjoyed this novel please refrain from commenting on things along the lines ‘you are wrong’. If you want to read this novel…eh, I guess I should remind you to check out more positive reviews.

The Archer begins with a 3rd pov that gives us an overview of the childhood of our protagonist. The narrative year tries to make it so that we are seeing things from the pov of a child, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. Vidya lives in Bombay during a generically historical period. There is Father Sir, Brother, The Mother, and briefly Room-Not-Mother. Vidya has to look after Brother and has to be obedient and respectful towards her elders. Nothing much happens other than some lengthy descriptions about objects or feelings that amount to absolutely nothing. Vidya is devoid of personality because we all know children don’t have those…anyway, one day she sees a Kathak class and wants to learn this type of dance. The Mother eventually dies (i think?) and Vidya is given even more responsibilities. Father Sir plays almost no role, his presence relegated to two or three scenes. The narrative begins switching from a 3rd to a 1st pov, in a painfully artificial attempt at mirroring Vidya becoming aware, through dancing, of ‘the self’.
There is a time skip and the story is narrated by Vidya herself, who is now at university. Once again the narrative is very much all telling, no showing. The author will dedicate a paragraph to describe the flesh of a fruit or the shape of a shoe but spend almost no time fleshing out the secondary characters who soon enough end blurring together. Vidya has a predictable half-hearted relationship with another girl, but because neither of these characters struck me as real I could not bring myself that they would care for each other.
Another time skip and Vidya is married to this generic guy. We learn nothing about him, nothing substantial that is but the author will inform us of the smell of his sweat and his cologne. K. Then we get the predictable pregnancy where Vidya learns that the body is abject.
I just found the language so profoundly irritating. As I said, there are very few scenes actually happening in ‘real time’ on the page. Vidya mostly recounts to us stuff that happens, taking away the immediacy of that moment/scene. There is also very little dialogue so that we spend most of our time just listening to Vidya’s voice. Yet, in spite of the pages and pages she spends navel-gazing, I did not feel as if she was a fleshed-out character. She was an impression, a generic girl who grows up to become a generic young woman. She’s often painted as the victim, but I felt no sympathy towards her.
The prose was full of cliched descriptions and platitudes (“ the scars on her skin making her legs more beautiful instead of less”). There were so many unnecessary words. Time and time again Vidya felt the need to say something backwards (on the lines of ‘it was not that I was sad’). Or we get passages like this: “Something else had been lost, many things had been lost, perhaps everything had been lost, the girl I had been felt far away, though I had come to school to be rid of her—the sad, motherless girl with dry ugly knees and a dark ugly face: that girl, I could not remember her as me, I could only remember her as though I watched her from somewhere outside her body;”. Rather than just saying things as they are, the author will refer to things such as Vidya’s ‘true voice’, or lazy descriptors such as ‘tomorrow-feeling’ and later ‘girl feeling’. Time and again Vidya will not say what she thinks or feels directly. She will preface whatever by saying ‘and so’, ‘perhaps’, ‘it seemed to me’, and then go to say ‘it wasn’t y nor was it x but it was z’. All these words end up amounting to nothing. They did not make Vidya into a more credible character nor did they bring to life her surroundings/experiences. Yet the author will sacrifice character development to these prolonged acts of introspection that actually don’t reveal anything about this character.
This was a bland affair. The best thing about this novel is the cover/title combo. Its contents left much to be desired. I’ve read far more compelling novels about fraught mother/daughter relationships (You Exist Too Much and The Far Field) and I wish that Vidya’s Kathak practices and her relationship with her teacher could have been the focus of the narrative.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Many Deaths of Laila Starr #1 by Ram V.

A Neil Gaimanesque sort of comic (think Good Omens & Sandman) set in contemporary India and featuring Hindu gods. Death is fired from her job and takes up residence in the recently deceased body of Laila Starr. There is a prophecy of sorts involving a child who apparently is destined to make humans immortal. Once in Laila, a vengeful Death decides to kill this newborn but her resolve falters once she has the opportunity to do so.
The writing was better than the average comic and the art, wow, the art is something else. I am head-over-heels in love with the artwork. The colours & the character designs are chef’s kiss. The storyline is fairly fast-paced and doesn’t delve too deeply into any one topic or character so I’m curious to see if the next instalments will add more dimension to this story.


my rating: ★★★½

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Written in Lahiri’s characteristically understated prose Unaccustomed Earth is a bittersweet and minutely observed collection of short stories. Set in America, India, and even Thailand, these stories focus on relationships between siblings, parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren, married couples, and friends. They are also characterized by a strong sense of nostalgia, partly due to their ‘historical’ settings, partly due to the nature of the relationships, Lahiri is writing of. Characters misunderstand each other, they fall out of love, they don’t reciprocate each other’s feelings (be romantic or otherwise), or fail themselves and their loved ones. Lahiri’s characters are often unable or unwilling to make amends, recover, and or forgive the people closest to them. In these stories, Lahiri presents us with vividly rendered scenarios that give us crystal-clear glimpses into the lives of the people she is writing of. As with Lahiri’s other works, in Unaccustomed Earth quotidian spaces and conversations take the foreground, cementing the everyday realities of these characters.

Lahiri’s prose is as elegant and subtle as ever. Without wasting a single word Lahiri conveys the often incongruous feelings and thoughts that people experience, as well as presenting us with some piercing insights into love, loss, family, and belonging. Definitely, a must-read for fans of the short-story medium.

my rating: ★★★¾

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