'This novel, so vast and so amiably peopled, is a long, sweet, sleepless pilgrimage to life... Such writing reminds us that there are secrets beyond technique, beyond even style, which have to do with a quality of soul on the part of the writer, a giving of oneself ...His novel deserves thousands of long marriages and suitable readers...'
James Wood's Guardian review of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is the first of the adulatory quotes in my copy of the book, countless others follow, but it was a review by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books which helped explain why I had enjoyed Parts One and Two of the book so much...but couldn't quite pin down the reason.
John Lanchester is initially cynical about the hype that surrounded publication of A Suitable Boy back in 1993, flagging up the number of journalists dwelling on the size of the book, its weight, and the size of the advance, before doing likewise himself and then moving onto his assessment. There's a whole chunk of the review that I haven't read for fear of spoilers, and so skipping to the end I was holding my breath as his final verdict approached...
'The prose is intended not to distract. The resulting structural clarity is remarkable - you never don't know what's happening, why, where and to whom...'
and he went on to be suitably impressed. It was one of my biggest fears that with a family tree of such magnitude I would have my Chatterjis muddled with my Kapoors, and with so little knowledge of Indian life and customs to fall back on confusion would reign. In fact I have found quite the opposite, and as John Lanchester suggests...
'It's a considerable technical feat which draws no attention to itself... A Suitable Boy breathes...the unfakable, unmistakable breath of life.'
It would seem nigh on impossible for my brain, teeming with Devon and the garden this summer, to find itself completely immersed in Brahmpur life each time I opened the book, but it has been effortless and entirely enjoyable reading. Vikram Seth sets the scene and peoples it with such panache that I did know exactly what was happening and to whom, 'tis true, and having expected to be confused I am pleasantly surprised that I am not.
I am slowly becoming acquainted with the characters too...
Mrs Rupa Mehra, the matriarch who has had any power taken from her by widowhood and a domineering eldest son, yet still capable of fighting her corner with some histrionics when needs be.
Fiesty Lata Mehra, 'always the difficult one,' who has benefited from her mother's sacrifices to ensure that both sons and daughters receive a good education following their father's death.
Louch playboy Maan Kapoor and his much more serious brother Pran; Pran married to Lata's sister, and a lecturer at the university.
The vacuous and everso slightly comical Meenakshi, married to Lata's older brutish and bullying brother, Arun.
But I am a naturally inquisitive reader and can see that I have a great deal to learn about Indian everything. I decided not to do any background reading, and though I have bought the BBC radio dramatisation of the book I have no plans to listen to it just yet. I need to get the voices into my head for myself rather than have it done for me too soon.
I just wanted to arrive and be shown around.
So Partition, purdah (what is it actually, I think I know, but do I really know)
Food... kachauris, barfis, gajak, gulabjamuns...
..and so much more, there is little to be gained by stopping to check things out. I was quite relieved at the mention of 4711 cologne, at least I know what that is. I found some in a shop yesterday and wafted the tester around...can there be a scent that is any more familiar than 4711. However the book flows like the Ganges and I am happy to sail along with it, so much so that I have floated onto Part Three with ease.
I am wondering how you are all finding the book so I don't want to say much more, we can discuss in comments, but I did want to mention the whole notion of arranged marriage. I was startled to discover that I have never really given any thought to the impact of this on the man, I had only ever considered it from a woman's point of view, whilst Vikram Seth is very clear that there can be tensions on both sides. I fully expect to be surprised like this time and again.
But that's enough from me, over to you...