Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Margaret Atwood's "The Heart Goes Last"

Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest novelists of the era and has written the book on chilling dystopian fantasies as well as the complex dynamics that characterize the eternally fascinating bond between men and women. Her intensely readable and sometimes enjoyable, The Heart Goes Last is the latest offering from this major writer and it evokes mixed feelings.

Times are hard. A married couple, Stan and Charmaine are living out of a car, filling up on stale doughnuts and coffee while on alert for attacks from gangs. In desperation, they sign up for the Positron project, brain child of Consilience, which is a social experiment that promises them a home and job. The only caveat is they must swap their new home for a prison cell every alternate month because they are informed it is a good idea to “Do time now, buy time for our future!” Since, it is Atwood, of course Big brother is watching. Always. It is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to make Atwood fans, lick their lips in anticipation, in the hopes of discovering another A Handmaid’s Tale on their hands.

Stan and Charmaine convince themselves they are happy as can be with their new lives and remain that way till they develop an unhealthy obsession with the alternates who take over their homes while they are in prison. The sexual trysts that follow, ensuing subterfuge, jealousy, tension, in their domestic life coupled with the fact that something is clearly rotten at  Consilience given that coldblooded punishments are doled out to those who break the rules or are simply in the way or aren’t makes it all suitably creepy and pacey.

However, gradually the proceedings which you expect will take a turn towards the blackly humorous and chilling becomes increasingly farcical and bizarre. The reader will encounter men who enjoy intercourse with chickens, illegal organ and baby blood trading, fake Elvises and Marilyns used for sex, succour and entertainment, prostibots that deliver so much they promise to make prostitution redundant, and lasering technology which will manufacture sex slaves who are not really sex slaves because they want nothing more out of life than to be sex slaves. The material is wickedly funny till the laughs dry up.

Regular readers may be aware of Atwood’s propensity for selling even the most outlandish of concepts but this time around she seems to be a little off her game. It starts with the characters. Stan is an average Joe who is solid and dependable as a rule. Then he pimps out chickens and starts to develop alarming notions of convivial bliss. Charmaine is docile and disturbed before becoming downright disturbing in her job as Chief Medications Officer, a euphemism for Angel of death which is a euphemism for something far worse. She is a case study of the potential risks posed by those who are singularly susceptible to the pressures of conformity and a pathological need to please, before devolving into the vapid, subservient spouse, she originally was.

The dysfunctional duo limp forward in search of a happy ending with other twisted characters for company who are far too similar to the ‘talking heads’ that hand out death penalties at Carmaine’s job. These are not people you can root for. In fact, then can hardly be called that.

This dystopian saga which starts out as sinister begins to lean towards stupid and insipid. Atwood is sly and self – aware as ever, seemingly having a whale of a time but that somehow does not translate into a riveting read, perhaps because she seems to have lost control of the plot which romps ahead recklessly and heedlessly into the realms of the extraneous, which stops it from being satisfying or spectacular. Instead it is merely readable and somewhat disappointing. 

An edited version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express which you can read here.

Monday, November 02, 2015

The Sheer Joy of Hearing Back from Readers!

There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when somebody you have never met in your entire life reaches out to you from the murky darkness of the internet! For those with a more twisted frame of mind allow me to clarify - I am not talking about pervs who think your profile pic is good and 'want 2 make frandship with you' but about readers who pick up a copy of your book (or order it online) and actually take the time out from their lives to share their thoughts on it.

It is soooo sweet, the gesture always reduces me to a quivering pile of mush. This applies even if all the said individual wants to say is that 'YOU SUCK' and in his/her considered opinion ought to take up another career. In such cases, I console myself with the words little girls are told when an uncouth classmate tugs on carefully tied up pigtails "He likes you!" or rather "SCORE! You got through to them enough to make them reach out even if it is with a machete!" But thankfully acid - soaked emails are rare and most are very encouraging.

Sample this email from Lavanya, which has been shared with her permission. She is currently preparing for her NET Exams in December and grabbed a copy of Shakti: The Divine Feminine while buying exam guides.  Do check it out! And to all my readers out there, thanks so much for the love!

Dear Anuja,
I enjoyed reading the book because I love to read stories of the Divine. 70 percent of the stories were known to me (by reading Devi Mahatmyam) but the spin you gave them were phenomenal. I have always wondered why somethings happened the way it  did (as written in the holy books) and your characterisation was very convincing and answered many of my doubts but I feel you could have downplayed some regions which may not go well with the average Hindu psyche and minus those gnawing issues dealt in here, it is a great read.
Greatly enjoyed reading abt the platonic love of Vishnu and the equations Shakti had with Shiva and Vishnu. 
I found some words in the book didn't gel well with the rest as they were very contemporary (acc to me) for a primeval story. (Can't give examples as I was too engrossed in the book and didn't note down- yet I could feel it at some places) Yet I can't blame you for it as you have stated that the story never ends, it goes on in cycles, and is still going on and hence such timeless beings can't be held in a boundary of our making. 
About Indra's curse, I read in Devi Mahatmyam - malayalam version , that the Brahmahatya paapam he incurred was because of the death of Dadichi Maharshi (though he willingly committed Self sacrifice - Indra's selfishness was the reason why he had to commit self sacrifice). Thus cursed Indra seeks the support of Trimurthis to take him to Kali's abode for purification. After serious repentance by Indra, Devi forgives him and grants him his lost prosperity and vitality. No disagreement here as it's in line with what you have mentioned but the witchhunt was really depressing though it is very much a possibility.
I read a review of Shakti in The New Indian Express and I am pleased after reading it. Sometimes the reviews can be very deceptive. But I am very glad that I got my lazy self to buy your book as reading it was a real new experience. Believe me, I am no great reader - I have got books And left them untouched after the first few pages. Especially the widely publicised retakes on Indian mythology have always disappointed me and coz I don't get the intent of what they are trying to imply- I sometimes wonder - why the hype?
Shakti is very marvellously written and it was very easy to understand and identify with the primordial mother.
The part I loved the most - was the interaction between Durga and Mahisasura . His ultimate deliverance was very touching - which melted my heart.
I hope you continue to write more such stories adding your special ingredients to it that appeals to people like us who love to read such divine-stories yet get perplexed by the sheer volume and complexity of the sacred texts. 
All the best!
With love,

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Book Review: Karen Campbell's RISE

Scottish police – officer turned novelist, Karen Campbell’s Rise opens with the protagonist, Justine on the run from her psychopathic pimp/lover, Charlie Boy, with a big chunk of his money stuffed down her pants. It is a cracking opener, packed with tension and evocative detail. Shortly after, Justine blunders into Kilmacarra and straight into the heart of domestic turmoil and political unrest.
Campbell is a talented writer with a gift for creating characters that are honest, flawed and likeable. Justine witnesses a hit and run and she is sucked into the troubled marriage of the Andersons, whose elder son is the victim, when she is roped in to babysit their younger son, Ross having passed herself off as a certified nanny. Thanks to the peculiar circumstances in which she finds herself, Justine is in a place where she can either be the guardian angel who delivers them from evil or a satanic figure who is the harbinger of doom.
The drama plays out very well set as it is in the 2014 campaign for Scottish Independence and is chock full of narrative tension and emotional high notes. Till the bitter end, Hannah Anderson is convinced, Justine is nothing but trouble, come to tear her family apart. She and her husband, Michael have a typically troubled marriage. He is a former clergyman who currently serves as the local councillor. She is the writer who cuckolded him. They have two young sons and the duo are trying desperately to put together the pieces of their marriage not suspecting that the upheaval in their lives has only just begun.
Michael is being pestered by a ghost and Campbell lifts this conceit out of the morass of all things ludicrous with consummate skill and pathos. For instance when he finds out about his wife’s infidelity, he winds up swallowing his outrage: “Her grief melting him. Making him take his own and fold it smaller and smaller until he could tell himself that it was unimportant. Selfish even.”

 A particularly poignant theme in Rise, involves the tendency of overprotective parents and caregivers both to encumber their charges with the baggage from their lives, thereby inadvertently putting them in harm’s way. Little Ross is a child who has the love of his parents and Justine both, yet he is the one who is pummelled when the parents are fighting tooth and nail and it is his life which is endangered when retribution catches up with Justine. His plight is moving, heart – stopping and entirely hopeful.
Charlie Boy is a terrifying antagonist and seems to have been modelled along the lines of a rabid dog – all infected fury and savage brutality: “If he finds her…if he starts kicking, he won’t be able to stop.” His presence in the course of the narrative is fleeting and yet, packs a wallop in terms of sheer, unadulterated menace.
However, despite the fact that Rise has so much that works in its favour it fails to really soar, especially after the glorious opening and engaging middle portions. Inexplicably running out of steam, it sputters weakly over the finish line. The plotlines are resolved with varying degrees of success but it is all rather disappointingly pat. This, despite the fact that Campbell rises above literary cliché and refuses to settle for easy solutions.

Rise can be counted on to get a rise, all the way to the fag end, when it falters and leaves the reader, inexplicably deflated and unsatisfied. 
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express and can be seen here.