'A Suitable Boy' Readathon, the Final Post

Well, it's finished! And on time too, which is a bit of a shock based on my behind-time participation in this readathon, lol. FYI, there are some spoilers in this final post.

This book has left me fairly gobsmacked since the moment I opened it nearly three months ago with its consistency, its heart and its raft of characters who feel like long-time friends, and having now reached the end, I feel like I've discovered one of the books of my lifetime. Like, this book now lives under my skin, in my heart, in my own writing, like 'Anna Karenina' or 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' or any of my other long-time faves.

Obviously, Lata's choice of husband was a disappointment - how could it not be? As Malati and Sam have both pointed out, Lata rejected gold and silver in favour of bronze, and Haresh is...I don't know. I believe Lata will be happy because she's strong and she knows why she's chosen him but at the same time, what a waste. I can't believe she won't be bored with him, but I suppose her expectations of marriage are different to mine, silly Western girl that I am! So much more was required of her and her choice, and I do respect her for facing that head-on. 

Throughout this book I've felt that Vikram Seth has been reminding me that life isn't fair and that things don't always work out as you want...but still I kept turning the pages leading up to the wedding thinking 'When will Kabir do something? Where is he?!', forgetting for a time that this book is not resident in modern film parlance but rather 1950s India, which of course is a whole other kettle of fish. Lata is now as old as my grandmother - of course, this is what Seth's upcoming 'A Suitable Girl' is about - and this is a lesson again that times then were perhaps not as selfish and individualistic as they are now. I worry for Lata and I suppose I'm proud of her too. By the way, tell me that she and this book are not real and I'll all but eat your hand.

As with all great books, it's left me humbled, moved and feeling like maybe I don't know much about anything at all, which is often a very liberating thing to feel.

Otherwise, the religious tensions were both shocking and wholly predictable, which gives me little faith that things won't always be the same in that respect. Actually, some of the most powerful aspects of the book speak of non-change in both characters and society: Meenakshi's infidelity remaining secret, intermarriage remaining difficult, people struggling against inequalities of opportunity, PR and class.  Also, Firoz and Maan remaining friends even after the stabbing, Saeeda Bai losing out because of her profession, religious and intense familial tensions inevitably ripping the friendship of Mahesh Kapoor and the Nawab Sahib apart - plus ca change! I think I will need days and weeks to fully comprehend all the lessons I have learned.

I shouldn't need to recommend this book to you here, as if you've faced the spoilers you've probably already read it, and if not, hopefully the statement that it's one of the books of my lifetime is recommendation enough. Every second spent with this book was a nourishing feast and I am already beside myself with excitement that 'A Suitable Girl' is hopefully out next year.

My thanks, by the way, to the other readathon participants; read what they think here:

Tiny Library
JoV's Book Pyramid

Also, here are my previous books about this readathon: No. 1,   No. 2,   and No. 3.

Title: 'A Suitable Boy'
Author: Vikram Seth
Publisher: Phoenix House
Date: 1993
Format: Hardback, 1349 pages, and my copy is a library book.


New Arrivals

I've been a bit naughty these last few weeks: I kinda promised that I would read the unread books I have before buying any others and would go to the library if there was anything I was desperate to get my hands on before then....

...obviously, fail - duh - so an In My Mailbox-type post seemed totes appropes.

First, I went to a day of Charleston's 'Small Wonder' short story festival, which was fabulous, and attended a talk called 'Dark Corners' with Sarah Hall and Elif Shafak. From that I came away with this,The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. She was actually there talking about her most recent book, Honour, but I'd heard her talk about this one on The Book Show previously and quite fancied approaching her work a little more chronologically.

'Discover the forty rules of love...
Ella Rubenstein has a husband, three teenage children, and a pleasant home. Everything that should make her confident and fulfilled. Yet there is an emptiness at the heart of Ella's life - an emptiness once filled by love.

So when Ella reads a manuscript about the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Rumi and Shams of Tabiz, and his forty rules of life and love, her world is turned upside down. She embarks on a journey to meet the mysterious author of this work.

It is a quest infused with Sufi mysticism and verse, taking Ella and us into an exotic world where faith and love are heartbreakingly explored...'

Then, after attending Messages from Angela Carter which featured a fabulous reading of her classic 'The Tiger's Bride' which you can listen to by clicking on the link, we went to What Are You Looking At? with Will Gompertz, which was hilarious. So hilarious, in fact, I bought the accompanying book.

According to the blurb, by reading What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye you will learn:

'Conceptual art isn't actually rubbish
Picasso is a genius (but Cezanne might be better)
Pollock is no drip
Cubism has no cubes
A urinal changed the course of art
And why your five-year-old really couldn't do it.'

Excited about this.

Then, this week, charity shop! Who can resist at £1.99...?


A modern classic. I think the copy I read before must have been a library book as I don't have it, but I re-watched the film the other night - Scarlett Johansson still blows my mind - and then bumped into this copy, so it seemed like fate.

Everything I've heard about Megan Abbott has been unanimously wonderful, so I'm itching to get into this, and then maybe search out Dare Me, her most recent one, which featured on The Million's Most Anticipated Listearlier this year.


I bought Vikram Seth's  An Equal Music because I will be absolutely bereft when A Suitable Boy ends. *sob* I hope this is just as rich, moving and epic.


The purchasing of  Daughter of the River: An Autobiography by Hong Ying proves yet again that Asia has a huge pull on my imagination, and that comparing something to 'Wild Swans' is the best way to get me to buy anything at all :)


'Lizard' by Banana Yoshimoto

'Lizard' by Banana Yoshimoto was a spur-of-the-moment buy due to its slim volume and flashy neon cover, and I read it in a single evening in a cafe. It's six short stories, plus two afterwords, published in the original Japanese in 1993 and translated into English in 1995.

Out of the six stories - 'Newlywed', 'Lizard', 'Helix', 'Dreaming of Kimchee', 'Blood and Water' and 'A Strange Tale from Down by the River' - 'Newlywed' was my favourite. In it, a tramp turns into a beautiful woman next to a drunk male newlywed on the train late at night, after the man shows him the kindness of not moving away from him when he sits down; a little like a depressing, grown-up version of the beginning of Disney's 'The Beauty and the Beast'. They, the man and the beautiful woman/tramp, talk about why he might not want to go home and why he might: his wife has so quickly spun such a perfect web of domesticity that he is unnerved and a little repulsed by it, as well as being in awe of her and grateful. He finds her slightly unknowable and bemusing, and he finds her a little intimidating too, I think.

Thankfully, he chooses his wife over the other ever-present routes that the beautiful woman/tramp represents - as the tramp says to him, he could just not get off the train - by going home to her even though she is freaking him out; I felt really bad for the wife, as she really hasn't done anything wrong. This story was neat, compelling and sober, I thought, and kinda spot-on about the adjustments and anxieties that accompany settling down, domesticity and marriage.

The other stories were good, covering a lot of the same themes. 'Lizard' also deals with the past and violence, 'A Strange Tale from Down by the River' talks about the changes that accompany motherhood. The others....have kinda merged into one in my head. 

Yoshimoto tells these stories in a sparse, slightly trippy way that resembles a lot of other modern Japanese fiction, and utilises a lot of the features both of it and modern representations of Japanese life: as in, she stays on the surface of characters, rendering them rather unknowable, close individuals and even lovers are completely alienated from one another, and memory and family are dangerous, confusing things. Unfortunately, I experienced very little emotional engagement, which is why the stories probably now escape me. Also, apart from the emotional and psychological revelations, very little happens.

This were nice stories, and I'd pick up a book of hers again, but ultimately I found them a little shallow and forgettable.

Title: Lizard
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Date: 1995
Format: Paperback, 180 pages, and I bought it.



'A Suitable Boy' Readathon, No. 3

I am a horrible readathon participant - this check-in is now two weeks late and I am still roughly 200 pages behind. Bad blogger, hand slap. 

I have no original excuses really: I've been really busy and the size of this book means it's impossible to read it whilst travelling or to carry around with you, ready for a spare moment. Maybe they should feature it in the adverts for e-readers, or maybe I should have manned up about 400 pages ago and bought it to read on my iPad. There's something though about the inconvenient weight of it that fits that weight and depth of the story that I like, so despite these issues, I plan to slog merrily on with my library-loaned hardback copy til the end :)

Anyway, I am currently on page 829, and there will be spoilers in this readathon update. 

So, this book is long but incredibly satisfying, and I am still enjoying every page. The focus on this middle section has been on the court case surrounding the Zamindari Act, which hopes to remove vast land ownership from landowners and give it to their tenants, and the human face of this, which is represented by Rasheed, Maan Kapoor's Urdu teacher whose father is a landowner in a tiny village called Debaria, out in the sticks. Maan, who is the son of Mahesh Kapoor, the Home Minister and lover of musician/courtesan Saeeda Bai, is a character I am now beginning to see the point of: previously he has been chasing his family strife to no particular narrative end, but now it is clear that his relationship with Rasheed and Saeeda Bai is crucial to the Zamindari narrative of the book. He's deeply flawed still but changing, and I've enjoyed the time spent with both him, Rasheed and Rasheed's family over the last 300 or so pages. As Sam says in her readathon update, the Zamindari resolution is a little anti-climatic when it finally comes, but the characters seem to feel this also, so maybe Seth is making a comment on the nature of both the hype and resolution of great social change.

Still though, the Mehras, the Kapoor and the Chatterjis interest me most, and I enjoy the personal relationships between them. In fact, I find most of them wholly charming, and look forward to finding our how all their predicaments resolve as I move into the final third of the book. I don't like Haresh Khanna, Lata's most likely marriageable prospect at present, though, despite how keen Mrs Mehra is on him. I agree mostly with Lata: he's flashy and distracted, and who would want to marry someone who is openly in love with someone else, even if the object of his affection is Sikh rather than Hindu, which means their love can never be fulfilled? I hope for better for Lata than that. It is interesting though how caste can be discussed in relation to Haresh - he is Khatri, which means he is a suitable prospect for Lata, but he isn't afraid to deal with the stinky and disgusting leather preparation processes of his shoe-making business, which, being traditionally lower caste/untouchable tasks, freaks everyone out. He seems a bit of an anomaly, and I'm not sure if that's because he's a bit progressive in some ways, or if he's a little nebulous in himself, and a little immature. I like Kabir, the unsuitable boy we met in the first third, more and more though, which is a very good bit of subversion on Seth's part.

There have been some horrible parts too though: there is an instance of child abuse that I found so chilling that I had to put the book down for a day or two as it made me nauseous and cold. Also, the tragedy at Pul Mela was just awful, as was the death at the student protest, which I've just passed (apologies for my vagueness, but I don't want to give everything away. Those who've read it will know exactly what I mean), but the result of this is that this book presents a very realist portrait of the highs and lows of a society over time. Also, the Pul Mela tragedy shakes the faith of the spiritually-minded Dipanker Chatterji, and I've very keen to see what this means for his character development.

Seth's writing is still gorgeous and so accessible yet illustrative, and so consistent thus far over 800 pages, that my mind slightly boggles. He is a great writer. I found this passage, for instance, stunning:
'It was not unpleasant to be ploughing at this time of day. It was cool, and walking ankle-deep in cool water and mud behind a pair of well-trained and obedient bullocks (Kachheru had trained this pair himself) felt fine. He rarely needed to use his stick; unlike many peasants, he did not enjoy using it at all. The pair responded to his repertory of calls, moving anti-clockwise in intersecting circuits around the field, as close to the edge as possible, drawing the plough slowly behind them. Kachheru continued to sing to himself, interrupting his bhajan with 'wo! wo!' or 'taka taka' or other commands, and then picked up the tune not from where he left off but from where he would have been had he never stopped singing. After the whole of the first field was covered in furrows - a field twice as large as the one he farmed for himself - he was sweating with exertion. The sun had now risen about fifteen degrees in the sky, and it was becoming warm. He let the bullocks rest, and went around the untouched corners of the field, digging up the earth with his spade.'
I find Seth's way of writing, completely immersive: for the length of this paragraph, I'm tilling a field with Kachheru behind some well-behaved bullocks. I know how early it is, I know how warm I am at different times, and I am in India in the 1950s. This feeling I get from large sections of this book is like the one you get after eating a hearty, satisfying meal that you know is doing you good.

So, I like it a lot, and I'm excited for the remaining 500 (!) pages. :)

Here's what the other readathon participants say:

Sam at Tiny Library
JoV's Book Pyramid
Title: 'A Suitable Boy'
Author: Vikram Seth
Publisher: Phoenix House
Date: 1993
Format: Hardback, 1349 pages, and my copy is a library book.
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