For a very long period of my life, I read just about everything that I could get my hands on. Even the idea of categorizing some kinds of books that I might rather not read came to me at the age of sixteen, when I moved from the vicinity of carefully chosen home and school libraries into the college hostel. With good intentions of focusing all my time on communication theories and microelectronics, I had refrained from taking any reading material other than my textbooks, and within a few short weeks had started to make surreptitious visits to the arts college library adjoining ours. There I read vast quantities of the classics and there I came across Tender Muse, a poetry collection by Russian poetesses, which – but that is another story.
We were forbidden from borrowing the arts library books, and so on the long weekends in that little town which was surrounded by hills and bordered by misty pathways of coniferous trees, my eyes would seek and find random novels lying about the hostel, which I would seek to borrow from their owners who would always, generously share them. It was there the I was exposed for the first time to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ fiction. I read through novels and stories of Jeffrey Archer and wondered why so many swooned over the forgettable page-turners. Shocked by some of the graphic scenes, I threw up my dinner while reading Bloodline. A friend with a penchant for the classics lent me Gone with the Wind, which I enjoyed. But I was not able to get through more than the first five pages of a Mills & Boon novel, coloured paperbacks of which were scattered around the hostel like fallen spring flowers in the wind. The classmate who lent me the book was a connoisseur of the said romances. According to her, reading them cleared her mind and relaxed her. As I was rather prudish, she chose a novel for me from her large collection, a book which according to her was ‘very mild’, ‘no strong scenes’. But the first five pages of that novel were not only devoid of strong scenes, they did not appear to have scenes at all – just three stick figure stereotypes standing on the page, speaking atrocious dialogue. Whatever else it might have been, it was not literature. I returned the book and learned to ignore pulp romances as well as thrillers of most kinds, with the exception of standard science fiction and literary mysteries. My days of reading ‘everything I got my hands on’ were over.
Sometime later, I picked up a book from the British Library intrigued by the premise of a leprechaun switching the minds and bodies of a married couple. I regretted it from the first few paragraphs, on the very first page. The cardboard characters were more unimaginative that those found in a women’s magazine story, the descriptions were tedious, the scenes barely hanging together, the dialogue flat and uninspired. That was the British Library in a boring little coastal town where I was working at the time, and its collections were small but highly selected. It was surprising to find a book of such poor quality on its shelves. I skimmed through the pages and read the author’s note at the end on ‘why he chose to write this drivel’, which was the only statement that rang true in that book. It was the beginning of the realisation that I read fiction to find the truth within it.
Since then, I learnt to fastidiously avoid pulp of any kind, averting my eyes from the rather vulgar looking displays in bookstores and skipping whole sections in libraries, the exception being one ladlit paperback by the chap who unleashed a cottage industry of poorly written English novels in India. An ex-colleague in my previous office urged me to take a look, according to him it was ‘crap, but time-pass crap’. The book reminded me strongly of the first and only Mills & Boon that I had tried to read – with poorly conceived characters, badly written dialogue and a non-existent plot, there was nothing commendable in it but nothing that gave offense either, until I got to the last page and found that the climax bore more than a strong resemblance to that of Life of Pi. The plagiarism has been hinted upon in many other blogs, but it will most likely continue to go unnoticed as it has over these years as despite the millions of copies sold, no one takes these lowbrow novels seriously. For these are but the twenty-first-century versions of dime novels and penny dreadfuls – cheap reading material that is mass produced, consumed like fast food and forgotten soon afterwards, poorly written pulp fiction which is the polar opposite of good literature.
But is every book that calls itself literary fiction really worth reading? Though not exactly in the same league as the pulp paperbacks referenced above, I recently read a book that aspired to, and was categorised as literary fiction for a class on dramatization taught by the author. Despite the striking opening with the main character who wins a reality show and is thereafter lost in a jungle, and a promising premise of nostalgia for old England which is often interesting to readers of English literature across the world, the characters and narrative turned out to be flat and uninspiring. It comes as no surprise that Amazon mentions the book being out of print. This is one of the very few books that I plan to give away as it was really not worth the time spent on it.
*spoiler alert – review may contain mild spoilers*
In the first few pages, The Riders by Tim Winton comes across as a simple story of a family migrating from Australia to Ireland. Scully, a young Australian is working hard to restore an ancient cottage in rural Ireland, transforming it into a home for his pregnant wife Jennifer and daughter Billie who are soon to join him. He strikes up a friendship with the postman Pete and through their conversations, it is revealed that Jennifer had made the impulsive decision to sell their home in Australia and relocate to this remote village. Jennifer emerges as an enigmatic figure through these conversations, an educated woman with artistic aspirations who flits across countries and art-forms in search of self-actualization. Scully is the loving husband who believes in her, supports her and follows her.
When the cottage is finally ready, Scully drives to the airport to receive his family and finds that his daughter has arrived alone, traumatised and unable to speak. Father and daughter soon set off on a journey across Europe in search of the absconding mother encountering scary dogs, would have been artists, old friends who sound like they are withholding information and strange women. All along, fresh insights are revealed in fleeting glimpses, subtle hints in the settings, reactions of minor characters and in between the lines of dialogue. Was Scully, whose thoughts project him as a calm, kind and positive man, really a good husband? What appear to be plot-holes – Why wouldn’t Scully report his wife as missing to the police? Why was Billie silent about what she knows about her mother? The questions fall away as the novel moves towards its surreal conclusion.
The references to the myth of the wild hunt are unclear and open-ended like Scully’s journey in search of Jennifer. There is much inter-textuality in the narrative, with repeated references to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Billie thinks that her father is like Quasimodo and loves re-reading her old comic version of the novel, while her mother dismisses it as ‘that old thing’. The device of multiple narrators with the points of view shifting rapidly from Scully to Billie to the omniscient narrator to Pete to Irma to even an unknown voice that may or may not have been Jennifer’s, allows the reader to see just a little further into the minds of the flawed characters. Despite the harsh realism, the book is a gripping read and the open conclusion with a touch of fantasy is not unsatisfactory. This is another of those novels that fall into the rare genre of the literary page-turner.
Writer as therapist, and fiction, more specifically the novel as therapy.
Stumbled upon this lecture by Professor Patricia Waugh, the author of Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction.
Video Link Source: The British Academy Channel on YouTube
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo can be placed under many genres – a work of literary fiction, it can also be easily categorised as historical, paranormal, YA, multicultural or mystery novel. It is one of those books that transcend genre and can be read by various categories of readers for the pure pleasure of reading a book with an unusual premise, a fantastic setting, a gripping narrative and well developed characters.
Set in colonial Malaya in the 1890s, The Ghost Bride narrates the story of seventeen year old Li Lan who is compelled due to her family’s penurious circumstances to consider marrying a dead young man based on the ancient Chinese custom of arranging marriages for dead people.
Li Lan is surprised when her father informs her about the proposal from the wealthy and influential Lim family seeking her hand for their son Lim Tian Ching who had died a few months earlier. Her father has neither the means nor the active will to seek a suitable match for her as he lives out his days in a haze of opium and memories of her mother. It does not help that Li Lan does not have much of a social life and sees no one except her father, nursemaid and cook who make up their household. Lim Tian Ching’s mother pursues Li Lan with invitations to Mahjong games and musical soirees at the Lim family mansion where Li Lan meets Tian Bai, Lim Tian Ching’s cousin and the present heir to the Lim fortune and falls in love almost immediately with him. But soon Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt Li Lan in her dreams and in her bid to get rid of the nightmares of his ghostly wooing, Li Lan finds herself trapped in the spirit world, where she must confront not only the conspiracies of the Lin family but also the secrets of her own past.
The book takes the reader on a fast paced tour of Malaysia when it was Malaya and the Chinese afterworld, stopping now and then to explain the context and describe the surroundings – such as the Chinese folktale of the cowherd and the weaving maiden which is celebrated as a festival on the seventh day of the seventh month, the politics of the afterlife which replicate the world that they had left behind for both rich and poor ghosts, ridden as it is with conspiracies, greed, lust, struggle for power and corrupt border officials who can be bribed to delay the passing of ghosts from one realm to the next where retribution awaits them.
The side characters are a most interesting lot – Li Lan’s stern but well meaning Amah, the old cook who can see ghosts, the ghost woman Fan who hovers around her lover’s house draining him stealthily of his life force, the vicious concubine of Li Lan’s grandfather who takes her revenge from the afterlife, the medium who foresees Li Lan’s journey into the afterworld, the old maid at the Lim’s ghostly estate who guards a secret related to Li Lan and the dashing and mysterious Er Lang, all of them including the ghostly characters come alive through the pages.
What I liked about the book: Almost everything. I especially liked two aspects – one was the realistic characterisation of the heroine and the way she was shown to be changed as a result of her curious journey through the afterlife. Bookish and logical, Li Lan is hardly a perfect heroine. When her Amah tells her the love story of the cowherd and the heavenly sewing maiden, the child Li Lan is more interested in why the cowherd’s ox was able to speak and how it knew about the heavenly maidens, rather than the pathos of the love story. Unexposed to high society or even regular social interactions, when she is invited to the Lim mansion for the first time, she stares uninhibitedly at the opulence around her and eats her way through several platters of Malaysian delicacies. As the story progresses, from a lovestruck teenager who is uncertain of her fate, she grows into a mature person who is able to see things as they are and take strong life decisions.
The other thing that I loved about the book was its highly polished narrative, both the elegant descriptive prose and the subtle foreshadowing. For example (mild spoilers ahead), how the symbolism of Tian Bai presenting Li Lan with a watch is tied with Li Lan’s excursion soon after into the afterlife. This is linked to the Chinese belief that gifting a clock or a watch should be avoided as it measures out the days of the recepient’s life. Also the meeting between Li lan and Tian Bai at the Double Seventh festival, the symbolism of which is highlighted touchingly towards the end. (spoilers end)
A delectable treat that will appeal to both readers of literary and commercial fiction, this book is a dream debut for a first time author – it is as likely to be on several literary prize shortlists as it is to be on many bestseller lists.