Monday, October 12, 2015

Sarita Mandanna's Good Hope Road: A Review

I had loved Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills, though it reeked of overly poetic passages more often than was necessary and came shaded with accusations of plagiarism. I was excited about her new book, Good Hope Road. When it came, I was surprised that it was on a theme as different as possible from her debut. The language is so unlike the previous book as well. Without the benefit of the author's name on the cover, I wouldn't have been able to tell it is the same writer who wrote both the novels. Though she continues with the sugary poetic phrases and passages in this one too. I am not at all sure this evident lack of a style is a good thing at all.

Anyway, here is a review of the book. The New Indian Express has conveniently removed the last two paragraphs of the review, making it seem now read lazy and half hearted. I am not linking the piece here. Below is the full review.

Aleph, 400 pages
Rs 595

What do pretty words do? A lyrical line, a clever turn of phrase, a poetic piece of prose in a book, a page, a passage: what it does is that it gives you a line to note down in a journal of favourite such lines from there and elsewhere. What these words and phrases do is make you remark privately on the poetry in the writer’s prose, applaud her imagination in stringing smart metaphors together, the sorts that make you pause your reading and say ‘ah’. But there is something like too much of a good thing. We have known that for long. And it is this too much of a good thing that threatens to tarnish the gleam in Sarita Mandanna’s Good Hope Road.

Mandanna is a good writer, undoubtedly. Some of her metaphors are very well thought of indeed. “…petrol-over-water colours”, “the sheen of a fin upstream” and such like draw a picturesque scene in the readers’ minds, like something at the edges of a detailed postcard. They lend themselves delightfully to a reading aloud, the lyricism as pleasing to the ears as to the mind that recreates every scene in a story as you go along. But the pitfall – and I imagine it is a hard one to avoid falling into – is that the story itself gets clouded by the pretty d├ęcor that is sprinkled on every page like sparkly confetti. Which is too often the case with Good Hope Road.

The story’s scope is ambitious and is spread over many decades and a couple of generations, spanning the First World War and ending just at the beginning of the Second. The narrative goes back and forth, shifting between the years and stories and incidents, jerky in some places, but mostly retaining a decent pace. There is Major James Stonebridge, a Yankee from New England and Obadaiah Nelson, a Louisiana native who find themselves at the warfront in Paris. Idealistic, brave, loyal and hungry for adventure, as most young men were, they form a deep, and unlikely, friendship. A decade and half later, Stonebridge is a recluse, back home, but lost somewhere still in France’s old war zones. A mirror that he is content to stare into stares back at him an image of a man broken and burdened by a war that changed his generation and the histories of many nations. His anger, his moods are most felt by his son Jim, whose first understanding of his father’s life comes when pretty and privileged Madeleine enters their lives. She won’t let the Major stew in his black mood, drawing him slowly out of his shell.

Then there is the Bonus March that is sweeping the nation... a reference uncannily, coincidentally similar to the protests sweeping this nation, for pensions and dues. Mandanna picks up on a little known protest by veterans demanding that the US Government give them the bonuses due to them and explores poignantly the way nations ignore their returning soldiers. It is in that sense a story of every nation that has ever been at war. While young men are sent off to the front with fanfare and hailed as heroes, or martyrs, the ones that return are often ignored. Their assimilation into a society that has never seen bombs or been in trenches is an exercise undertaken only reluctantly, half-heartedly, if at all. Good Hope Road addresses this theme with sensitivity, highlighting the trauma, the depression and lack of a sense of purpose that plagues war heroes. It is not limb or life alone that is affected, but the hidden scars that run dark and deep that Mandanna seeks to shine a torch on. And for all the gloss, the book does do that rather well.

Her attention to detail makes for fascinating reading as well. Skimming over the technical details of war positions and strategies, she cuts right through to the lives of the soldiers, strangers thrown together by patriotism, adventure or something else. Their camaraderie, the little sharing of a song or a letter, small conversations, these are places where the book offers lovely insight into the human-ness of those that fight a nation’s wars.

While the present is told in the words of Jim, the son, the war is brought to life largely through the eyes of Obadaiah, speaking in a Louisiana accent. Though the use of the dialect lends a measure of authenticity, Mandanna cannot seem to help but give Obadaiah pretty phrases to mouth as well. In doing so, she jarringly makes the reader aware that it is her, not him, telling this story.

A novelist’s job is best done when he or she sits back and creates a language for each of their characters to speak, without letting in their writing prowess interfere. Mandanna cannot seem to help herself from making her characters wax poetic, even when it goes against the rest of their language. In constantly doing so, Mandanna sure reminds how imaginative a writer she is, but it is done at the cost of what would otherwise have been a very good story.

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