“It is New Year’s Eve, 1982, and the whole gang is at Victor and Nandini’s house. The Godfather is on repeat upstairs. Baila music is blaring from the record player in the lounge. Poppadoms are frying in the kitchen. And Preethi, tipsy on youth and friendship and covert cigarettes out the window, just wants to belong.”
This book is essentially a collection of short stories, with several characters resurfacing later on in subsequent stories, or appearing as secondary ones in other stories. They all chronicle the lives of various Sri Lankan families and people, and their lives in Britain, as they attempt to construct a home away from home.
I wanted to love this book so much. It’s practically my story, if you switched Britain for New Zealand. There aren’t many novels out there that I can relate to on that level so when this book caught my eye I immediately loved the premise. And I wanted to love what was inside as well.
And I did love parts of it, don’t get me wrong. Such as the writing. Let’s talk about the writing. A review on the back describes Fernando as a virtuoso writer and I kind of have to agree. Every line seemed to be utter perfection. All the words, and the order she lays them in, just sit so well. Sometimes when I read, I rearrange the words in my head, but with this novel there didn’t seem to be a need for that. The lines resonated. And I can’t help but love that.
“She was selling dreams, and she was on the edge of them, as if an insect, buzzing back and forth from teacup to wineglass to coffee cup, and in each receptacle was a liquid of each world that surrounded her: home, Sri Lanka, school, church. When she read a book, it was familiar immediately, because she could play parts: she could be everyone. And here, in this champagne flute of an evening, she could be immersed in sparkling intoxication, and roll on to her side and look at all of these blonde, auburn, brunette heads in their jeans and shirt sleeves, their Laura Ashley dresses, with the daisy chains still in their hair, and she could imagine she was as beautiful as they were.”
“The champagne flute of an evening”? That line is killer.
The writing is dense. Each line is heavy with a thousand meanings, it seemed, and I had to weigh things in my head, roll the words around, before moving onto the next one. That sounds like heavy going, and maybe it is, but I have to say it suited me just fine. It made it very real. I couldn’t help but recognise characters from my own life within these pages, though they are darker, grittier, and much more . . .risque’s the word I guess, than in my world. (No wonder reality is so boring.)
It’s a fairly large cast of characters, all of whom rotate in and out of the stories. I read a review somewhere alluding to this aspect as a failing, saying that too many characters were introduced to really understand them. Personally, I disagree. Yes, there are a large cast of characters but the stories are designed to be read within a considerable space of time between each other. Or that’s how it seemed to me. It worked well that way because, as I said, every line and word that Fernando uses seem so significant that I felt as I needed to close the book and mull over what I’d just read for half a day or so. It was sort of like being in a speeding train, heading towards a crash. And once the crash occurs you can’t really get onto another train immediately. Although, in this case, you do eventually want to be get back on that train.
I think what detracted from the whole reading experience for me was the urgency of it all. Again ‘urgent’ is another description accorded to Fernando in one of the reviews. I can’t think of a description that could be more apt. That’s why that train analogy popped into my head. As I read, I felt myself being wound up, tighter and tighter, or maybe the story was winding up tighter and tighter, but there was never that explosion in the end. It was incredibly frustrating! I kept waiting for the resolutions, for the urgency to disappear, or at least be placated but no such thing happens. Maybe Fernando intended it that way. In reality, the pressures of life don’t just disappear and maybe she wanted that to seep into her stories. In which case, she succeeded. I was never fully satisfied with all of her stories – mabye some more so than others – but I don’t think there was a single one that actually left me completely happy. And again, just as in life, maybe that‘s how it should be.
In any case, she got under my skin. A lot. I mentioned in my last review of Stuart: A Life Backwards the kinds of stories that make you simultaneously hate and love them. I think this novel is going to be one of those.