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Book Nook - 02-03-2015

Monday, March 02, 2015
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]

Life And Literature
Niall Willaims’s Man Booker-longlisted History Of The Rain, is a booklover’s book. The narrator is19-year-old Ruth Swain, confined to bed in an attic room, because of “something in her blood.” But the tiny room is full of books that her father left for her, which she refers to in her “meandering” narrative, with number, publisher, and edition. At the end, a reader can compile from it a list of must-read classics.

Ruth’s home is on the banks of the river Shannon, in the Irish village of Faha "where everyone is a long story."  Her family’s history is strange, with dashes of magic. Like, her grandfather Abraham, running away from his stern religious father, fighting in the World War, being shot by a German, who also saves his life; then, as he is about to give up, the mother of the doctor who treated him, comes by to leave him her son’s legacy, which brings him to Ireland.

He lets the inherited mansion go to seed, as he spends all his time salmon fishing and recording his catches, till a formidable woman marries him and produces four children, including the restless Virgil Swain, Ruth’s father.  Virgil goes off to sea and washes up in Faha, where Ruth’s beautiful mother Mary falls in love with him and marries him.  Virgil is a voracious reader and poet and in spite of all his efforts just does not make a good farmer. The household runs on miraculously somehow, under the watchful eye of Mary’s mother, Nan.  Ruth and her twin Aeney are as happy as can be, even though Ruth’s passion for books marks her as the unpopular girl “too clever by half,” and in a perverse way, also marked for tragedy.

Williams’s tone is part comic, part lyrical; the writing—as Ruth tells it—eccentric with random capitalisation and digressions into the ways of the Irish village inhabited by really good people, trying to cope with global recession, that has not even spared their distant rain-soaked community.

There are sweet characters, like Ruth’s sympathetic tutor Mrs Quinty and her persisted suitor, the gentle Vincent, who is not driven away by her caustic tongue.  History Of The Rain is both epic and intimate, and an absolute delight to read, made more so by the rediscovery of the great writers who are scattered through the pages.
History Of The Rain
By Niall Williams
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 368

Excerpt: History Of The Rain
The longer my father lived in this world the more he knew there was another to come. It was not that he thought this world beyond saving, although in darkness I suppose there was some of that, but rather that he imagined there must be a finer one where God corrected His mistakes and men and women lived in the second draft of Creation and did not know despair. My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better than they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world. Maybe this was because he was a poet. Maybe all poets are doomed to disappointment. Maybe it comes from too much dazzlement. I don't know yet. I don't know if time tarnishes or polishes a human soul or if it's true that it's better to look down than up.

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That's how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

In Faha everyone is a long story.

You anything to the MacCarrolls over in Labasheeda?

To begin you must be traced into the landscape, your people and your place found. Until they are you are in the wrong story.

My mother is MacCarroll.

I was thinking that.

But you are ...?

Swain. Ruth Swain.


We are our stories. The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.

Come here, Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching up to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.

Here, Ruthie, feel.

His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.

When it comes to Clare, when it passes our house, the river knows it is nearly free.

I am plain Ruth Swain. See me, nineteen, narrow face, MacCarroll eyes, thin lips, dull hazelnut hair, gleamy Swain skin, pale untannable oddment, bony, book-lover, reader of so many nineteenth-century novels before the age of fifteen that I became exactly too clever by half, sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome, possessor of opinions and good marks, student of pure English, Fresher, Trinity College Dublin, the poet's daughter. My History.

My History in College: I came, collapsed, came home again. Home — hospital, home — hospital, the dingdong of me. I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We're Not Sure Yet. I was Fine except for Falling Down. I have been Gone for Tests, Not Coming Right, Terrible Weak, Not Herself, and just A Bit Off, depending on the teller and whether loud or whisper, in Nolan's shop or on the windowsill of Prendergast's post office after Mass. For the record, I have never been Turning Yellow, never been complaining of the bowels, intestines or kidneys, never been spotted, swollen, palsied, never wetting, bleeding, oozing, nor, God-forgive-me, Bitch of the Brouders, raving. Mine is not the story. I am plain Ruth Swain, bedbound, here, attic room beneath the rain, in the margin, where the narrator should be, between this world and the next.

This is my father's story. I am writing it to find him. But to get to where you're going you have to first go backwards. That's directions in Ireland, it's also T. S. Eliot.

My father was named Virgil by his father who was named Abraham by his father who once upon a time was the Reverend Absalom Swain in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Who the Reverend's father was I have no clue, but sometimes when I'm on the blue tablets I take off into a game of extreme Who Do You Think You Are? and go Swain-centuries deep. I follow the trail in reverse, Reverends and Bishops, past the pulpit-thumpers, the bible-wavers, the sideburn and eyebrow-growers. I keep going, pass long-ago knights, crusaders and other assorted do-lallies, eventually going as far back as The Flood. Then in the final segment, ad-breaks over and voiceover dropped to a whisper, I trace all the way back to God Himself and say Who Do You Think You Are?

We are Swains. I read an essay once where the critic complained there was a distance from reality in Dickens's characters' names. He didn't know Dickens couldn't sleep. That he walked the graveyards at night. He didn't know Moses Pickwick was a coach-owner in Bath, or the church register at Chatham lists the Sowerberry family, undertakers, or that one Oliver Twiste was born in Salford, and a Mr Dorrett was confined in the Marshalsea prison when Dickens senior was there. I know, weird that I know that. But if you lie in bed all day with nothing but books you won't be Class One Normal yourself, and anyway Swains don't do Normal. Open the phonebook for County Clare. Turn to S. Run your finger down past Patrick Swabb the hurling chemist in Clarecastle and Fionnuala Swan who lives by the vanishing lake in Tubber, and before you get to Sweeney there we are. Between Sweeney and Swan we're the only entry, between the Bird King and the last daughter of Lir: Swain. The world is more outlandish than some people's imaginations.

Two Hearts Many Parts
The synopsis of Arindam Mohapatra’s Two Hearts Many Parts reads, “India is going through tremendous socio-economic upheaval. This novel is a modern love story that is intertwined around the social and cultural changes that have washed over the country. It deals with how individual lives can be affected by what happens when traditional relationships and interpersonal responsibilities are turned upside down in a changing culture.”

Which may have been the author’s intention, to capture this cultural flux, but the story of Two Hearts Many Parts is like a 1950s Bollywood melodrama.  As a nod to modernity, Mohapatra’s hero Aniket is a software engineer, but one who makes statements about not wanting to marry a woman who is not a virgin, with a straight face. He is a 27-year-old virgin too, with a chaste broken relationship behind him. In a hackneyed meet cute, he falls in love at first sight with the beautiful Priya. He gives her a lift on a rainy night and cannot get her out of his mind.

Everything that he goes through is shared with his best buddies Sid and Javed. Priya happens to be from the same Odisha town as Aniket, so when he visits his parents, he meets her, after having traced her on the net and ‘friended’ her on Facebook.

Priya is already engaged to be married to an NRI selected by her father, which does not prevent her from having a flirtatious, no-strings friendship with Aniket. Like a film plot twist, Priya’s father is hospitalised, and later passes away; a large part of the book has Aniket being a “good friend” to Priya and her family, helping her at a difficult time.

Earlier in the book, when Aniket was in Mumbai, he is caught up with a protest movement against rape. A girl was brutally raped and the city has come out in large numbers to demand justice (inspired by Delhi’s Nirbhaya case). This  gives an indication of what lies ahead, but when it comes to the cruch, Mohapatra chickens out of a truly modern ending, under the guise of trying to understand small town attitudes.

He does manage the typical Indian English dialogue (like answering the phone with a “tell me”) and the book might just appeal to those looking for a quick read—a book that also makes some statements about gender equality. Mohapatra’s book is earnest, but could have done with better editing.
Two Hearts Many Parts
By Arindam Mohapatra
Publisher: Leadstart
Pages: 377

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