I've had to wait several days before I could gather my thoughts on my latest Bookerthon read because it was one of the most unusual books I've read in many a long year and I loved it.
How strange is all this?
Book after Booker book I'm suggesting is good and readable,original and worth the money.It genuinely feels as if new life is being slowly breathed into this forty year old event and the Booker Dozen longlist a masterstroke of an idea.Suddenly we've lost the great sprawling disparate lists of old to be replaced by a concentrated nucleus of carefully chosen books that it is entirely possible to read before the shortlist is announced if you give up sleeping and eating and don't go to work.
Most of us have had to do all of those as well so it's been a bit tight here but I have loved almost every minute so far though I do have a failure to report later this week.
So Animal's People by Indra Sinha, what to make of it?
Written in a strange combination of pidgin and dialect (and that will have the linguists out there shuddering, sorry) but one that I grasped easily and in that The Colour Purple way suddenly you are deeply into the life and world of the book in double quick time.
Set in India and narrated by a man called Animal who has been orphaned following a catastrophic chemical leak from a nearby American factory.His spine has melted and he walks on all-fours and it is from this, the lowest level that the entire story is told,
"This story has been locked up in me, its struggling to be, I can feel it coming, words want to fly out from between my teeth like a flock of birds making a break for it"
As Ellie, a young American doctor arrives in Khaufpur to help the
long-suffering victims way after the event and many years into a
protracted legal battle, suspicions are rife amongst the locals.They are desperately in need of medical help but have reached the point where they trust no one from Amrika, they may as
well all be from the chemical Kampani, and so the call to boycott Ellie's hospital is initially a complete success.
Oral storytelling at its powerful best and presented as a transcript of twenty-two tapes recorded by Animal, his voice is one that you grow to love. Despite his seemingly unsavoury and undesirable habits he is instinctive and perceptive with a transparent honesty that leads you to trust his word and his judgement on everything.
"I don't know if you are a man or a woman. I'm thinking the things I'm telling you are not suited to a woman's ears, but if a person leaves things unsaid so as to avoid looking bad, it's a lie. I have sworn not to lie to you.If you feel embarrassed throw down the book in which these words are printed. Carry on reading, there's worse to come"
This in the middle of the night as Animal is perched half way up a mango tree spying on Ellie through her bedroom window.
Countless memorable moments in Animal's People, one as Animal explains to Ellie,
"What really disgusts me is that we people seem so wretched to you outsiders that you look at us with that so-soft expression, speak to us with that so-pious tone in your voice...people like you are fascinated by places like this. It's written all over you, all you folk from Amrika...jarnaliss, filmwallass, photographass, anthrapologiss"
Indra Sinha has taken an unusual perspective on an event which seems likely to be a fictional account of the Union Carbide-Bhopal tragedy of 1984 and now as I read about that anew, I'm deeply shocked.
More so than I remember being first time around, possibly because I was in mid three-babies-in-four-years production.Those times either make you hyper-sensitive to potential disaster or you go down the self-preservation route, shut yourself off from all external traumas and focus on your babies.I suspect I was having enough trouble staying awake on a daily basis, let alone coping with the news, so this book has been a startling reminder.
So much to reflect on with a book like this, the innate respect we accord one human being to another coming out top of my list and countless moments of tragedy and sadness all mixed in with Animal's humour.But time and again he hits the bull's eye, straight to the core, the fundamental truth in any given situation.
This as he and Ellie discuss the wearing of a watch,
"Now o'clock, always now o'clock.In the Kingdom of the Poor, time doesn't exist."
Animal's People absolutely does make my shortlist with just a few places left and four books to go.