Archive for June, 2013

June 29, 2013

Sheela Chari, Vanished

There’s been a minor revolution in Indian children’s publishing in the last few years, particularly with regard to Middle Grade and Young Adult books. But all this really means is that we have MG and YA books; it’s still rare that I find one I actually enjoy. So I leapt at the offer of a copy of Vanished, a book set in India and the USA and featuring a hunt for a possibly-magical veena.

Neela is eleven years old and lives in Massachusetts where, after school, she takes veena lessons. Her veena is an unusual one; a gift from a grandmother who also plays the instrument, it’s a Guru original, made by one of the greatest veena makers of all time. It has a strange, winged dragon carved into its pegbox. And then the veena goes missing.

Legend has it that one of Guru’s veenas keeps returning to a particular music shop in Chennai. And we’re also told that a famous American veena player called Veronica Wyvern (as in winged dragon, you ask?) owned a Guru original. None of this is particularly hard to piece together and it doesn’t really have to be. For me the big mystery was whether or not this was really a supernatural story.

There’s a blurb from The Hindu at the back of this book which  suggests that one of its virtues is that it “gives Indian readers a glimpse of life in America”. I thought this was interesting because I got the opposite sense–I think there’s an element of explaining India to American (or Americans of Indian origin) children (Vanished was first published in the USA by Hyperion in 2011). And part of the reason why it worked well for me is Chari’s choice to avoid turning it into a novel of multicultural angst. We’re never under the impression that there’s one model of Indian-in-America; Neela’s friend Pavi has far more conservative parents, but is (unlike Neela) also more willing to flaunt her difference and wear a bindi in public (Gwen Stefani wears one, she points out in a popculture reference that might already be outdated). And there’s no romance plot, merely a few friendship ones, and at least one of these is left unresolved in a way that felt very realistic to me. It sounds at this point as if I’m praising the book more for what it doesn’t do than what it does. But what all these omissions allow for is a relatively simple, likeable book and I genuinely enjoyed it.

And look, cover art by Jon Klassen!

June 28, 2013

John Freeman (ed), Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4

I have a short review of the most recent Granta in the current issue of Time Out Delhi, and you can read it online here.

June 26, 2013

Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim, The Moon Moth

From this week’s column. The Vance story in question is available here (though a chunk of it is repeated on that page, which is a bit bewildering if it’s the first time you’re reading it) and there’s an audio version that didn’t really appeal to me (warning: this version begins with sexual assault) here.

 

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A couple of weeks ago I reread Jack Vance’s short story “The Moon Moth” for the first time in years. The author’s death, at the age of 96, had just been announced, and to revisit this story felt like an appropriate homage. Particularly since I’d recently picked up a graphic novelised of the piece, with art by Humayoun Ibrahim.

“The Moon Moth” was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1961. It is set on a planet where the only currency is social currency. The people of Sirene never show their faces, wearing masks commensurate with their social status. Communication is done through a combination of song and a variety of musical instruments, with the instrument in question indicating the register or tone of the speech. For an outsider it is easy to give offence—to use the wrong instrument in the wrong social situation can cause anything from embarrassment to death.

Into this world comes Edwer Thissell, in his own world a man of prestige but here, an outworlder who can barely speak the language, is incompetent with the instruments he must play to communicate, and is only important enough to wear the modest mask of a Moon Moth. But soon after he arrives Thissell is ordered to hunt down a murderer. In a world where his own situation is precarious and where everyone around him wears a mask, this is somewhat difficult.

Vance wrote mysteries (often using the pseudonym “Ellery Queen”) as well as science fiction, and for all that it is set on another planet, “The Moon Moth” feels a bit like a classic detective story. It’s the setting that makes it memorable, and Vance’s prose.

Because for me the greatest pleasure from reading Vance’s work is in the language. Elegant, over the top, gleefully verbose, yet deadpan in tone and completely controlled. Almost as soon as the story opens Vance describes a houseboat as built “without ponderosity or slackness of line”; it’s almost as if we’re being dared to find slackness (there is none) in his prose.

When so much of what is appealing in his work comes from his use of descriptive language, Vance would seem a terrible candidate for transition into a more visual medium. It’s for this reason that I found myself a bit dubious about The Moon Moth, Humayoun Ibrahim’s graphic adaptation. Yet I was pleasantly surprised.

In part this is because it is such a visual story. A setting made up entirely of people in outlandish masks ought to be a gift to any artist, and most of the time Ibrahim takes full advantage of this. If there’s a complaint to be made it may be that he never really plays with the darker and more menacing aspects of this world; the cannibalistic “Night Men” who roam the shores at night or the sheer terror that an outsider might naturally feel at encountering a sea of blank, masked faces.

More importantly, the medium allows Ibrahim to depict the Sirenese language and Thissell’s failures at it in ways that even Vance could not. Speech bubbles are ornamented with patterns in the colours of the different instruments—a useful index at the front offers illustrations and explanations of each instrument –elaborate curlicues for more experienced practitioners, jagged lines for Thissell’s crude attempts. Even the lettering is cleverly deployed to show us where our protagonist stumbles. The reader is forced to focus on the central conceit of this story: language and communication and shifting social registers, in fact the entire question of the face we present to the world. And in the process we’re reminded that Vance wasn’t just (though it would be enough for me if he was) a stylish writer, but often a very clever one.

Forced to choose between this new version and the original, though, I’d still pick Vance’s prose over just about anything the artist could come up with.

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June 25, 2013

On World War Z

I have a short piece up at FirstPost about the use of Brad Pitt in World War Z; how this deviates from the book, and what the presentation of this character, and this arc, does for the film as a whole.

I did enjoy the movie, though the readiness with which the international community decides that Brad Pitt is humankind’s only hope made me roll my eyes rather a lot. In one scene (spoiler warning) Jerusalem is overrun, and even as its powerful political figures scramble to defend themselves, getting Pitt’s character out of there and onto a plane is a priority–his safety appears to be some sort of global policy. But Elyes Gabel’s truncated bit as mad scientist delighted me, as did Ruth Negga’s small role in the second half.

And it’s occasionally very beautiful. I know I just compared a scene in Man of Steel to a Beksiński painting so I suppose it’s possible I just have that style on my mind this month. And so this image on the poster instantly reminded me of this painting.

Or this much-publicised image (I was struck by how much of the few really good parts of this movie I’d already seen in the trailers and promotional images) which looks like it could fit quite seamlessly into any of the artist’s works.

For all that, though, WWZ was just a not-particularly-good, not-particularly-clever, big budget disaster movie. I wasn’t offended by it, anyway.

 

June 24, 2013

Elnathan John, “Bayan Layi”

The fourth of this year’s Caine Prize finalists, Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” is set among a group of street children during an election in their town.It’s told from the perspective of one of these boys, in a voice that combines an innocence of how the world works and plenty of violence.

I like chasing thieves especially when I know they are not from Bayan Layi. I am the fastest runner here even though I broke my leg once when I fell from a motorcycle in Sabon Gari. Anyway, the groundnut oil thief, we caught him and gave him the beating of his life. I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch. So we sat this boy down and Banda asked what his name was. He said Idowu. I knew he was lying because he had the nose of an Igbo boy. I used my nail on his head many times, demanding his real name.

I say “innocence” because there’s an almost complete lack of cynicism in many of Dantala’s thoughts. An electoral win for the Small Party will make a meaningful difference to these characters’ lives (“Things will be better if the Small Party wins. Insha Allah.”). The adult men really respect his friend Banda. Banda himself is less sure of the essential goodness of the world.

“We will win these elections,” Banda says.

“Of course, who can stop us?” We are talking like real politicians now, like party men.

“Will they really build us that shelter?” I ask.

“I don’t like to think of that, all I want is that they pay every time they ask us to work for them. After the election, where will you see them?”

And of course the reader knows that Banda’s probably right.

Three out of the four shortlisted stories that I’ve read so far employ the first person narrator, but “Bayan Layi” and “Miracles” are the ones for which this style seems most vital. John fully utilises that gap in knowledge between his child narrator and his adult reader. It’s like a grimmer (because the death and violence are entirely real) version of Swami and Friends. That comparison with R.K. Narayan might just go further than the choice of protagonist; though their prose styles aren’t really that much alike, there’s a precision and a deceptive simplicity about both that I’m very impressed by.

It’s probably obvious that I have little of worth to say about this particular story, but I think it may be my favourite so far.

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Other people’s thoughts on “Bayan Layi”:

Kola Tubosun at NigeriansTalk
Veronica Nkwocha
Beverley Nambozo
Kate Maxwell
C.E. Hastings for Africa in Words
Jeffrey Zuckerman
Chika Oduah
June 20, 2013

Barbara Pym, No Fond Return Of Love

I hadn’t read any Pym, I thought this was a problem, I decided to fix it, and a friend was reading this particular book. I don’t know if it was the best place to start, but I loved No Fond Return of Love, and have since then read a Pym and a half more.

From this weekend’s column:

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The dictionary of obscure sorrows (one of the best things about the internet today) defines “sonder” as “n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own [ … ] an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

There’s a moment in Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love where, as the characters sit down to a dubious meal in a seaside guesthouse, another guest walks in. An ordinary-looking, middle-aged woman, there is nothing about her to suggest that she is a well known novelist. And so “they ate their stewed plums and custard and drank their thimble-sized cups of coffee, quite unconscious that they were being observed”. This novelist is probably a stand-in for Pym herself. We never see her again in this book, but this short scene is a reminder that other lives and stories are intersecting constantly with this one. And that our protagonists themselves are being observed.

Because the main character of No Fond Return of Love is herself an observer of other lives. We first meet Dulcie Mainwaring at a conference she attends to distract herself from the unhappy end of a relationship. It is here that she meets Viola Dace and Aylwin Forbes. Aylwin is an attractive scholar, Viola a sometime-colleague who is in love with him. Fascinated by both, Dulcie befriends Viola and sets about finding out anything she can about Aylwin.

One of the oddest things about this situation is how easily Dulcie’s interest in the lives of the people around her is taken for granted. The reader is fully aware of the absurdity and the potential awkwardness of her actions—as Dulcie lurks outside Aylwin’s brother’s church, sneaks into his mother-in-law’s house under a false name, and visits his father’s grave. Viola, who might have been expected to have a greater interest in the life of the man she loves than Dulcie, just shrugs and lets her get on with her spy work. No Fond Return of Love was written in 1961, and reading it I cannot help but think of how much easier the internet has made a private fascination with other people’s lives.  Less waiting outside churches, more judicious Facebook investigation, and a significantly smaller risk of being caught out. We’re constantly waiting for this to all blow up in Dulcie’s face, but this is not the sort of novel for grand climactic scenes.

Instead, it moves along quietly. Pym is as keen an observer of character as her fictional stand-in; she’s able to zero in on exactly what makes her characters absurd, but also on what makes them ordinary and sympathetic. And so the stylish young woman, envious of her friend’s tryst with an older man sits at home wearing a face mask and wondering if Bournvita is “the appropriate beverage to round off an evening of illicit kisses from a married man”. Dulcie complains that a character makes her feel as if there is “something lacking in me” (Viola, always ready to score a point, replies that this is “hardly his fault”); and at the beginning of the novel she really does seem merely a “dim English spinster”, the category with which Viola dismisses her. But no one is merely anything, and gradually we see Dulcie rejecting the narratives imposed upon her and becoming the heroine of this story.

This month is Pym’s birth centenary, and I’ve been using the opportunity to become acquainted with her work. And I find myself being drawn in; she is funny and clever and always quoteable. But more important to No Fond Return of Love is this—that, dim spinsters or otherwise, all lives are tragic, bleak, comic, absurd, all lives are worthy of being seen.

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June 19, 2013

Bulletpoints: Man of Steel

(Spoilers, obviously)

Look, I’m a reasonable person. Ideally I’d like movies to be thoughtful and deep and beautiful and surprising and interesting, but on a summer afternoon with my friends I will settle for pretty people + stuff blowing up. Man of Steel is by a director whose previous work I haven’t liked, but it still promised to feature planetloads of explosions and Henry Cavill’s face. In the event, there was even more destruction than I’d anticipated and I’d forgotten just how impressive Cavill’s face was. I ought to have been satisfied, but I spent most of the movie either bored or actively unhappy.

  • I have no investment in Superman. I’ve never had a particular fondness for the character, I haven’t read that many of the comics, I don’t really care that he kills someone in this film. Or I do care, because if you’re going to make a movie about a particular character you might as well get the details right, but this is not an angry comics fan rant because I’m not really a comics fan.
  • The early scenes of MoS take place on Krypton, whose technology and interior design appear to have been designed by H.R. Giger (with added tentacles to draw in a modern, cephalopod-loving audience). I thoroughly approved of this. The design stuff is gorgeous, and there are weird flying beasties and underwater baby farms and important Kryptonians appear to be wearing headgear stolen from Immortals and so far things are going well.
  • Apparently Krypton has seen no natural births in centuries, which must be their excuse for not having contrived less painful ways for women to give birth. So the first thing we see of this movie is a Hollywood birth scene with the writhing and the pain, and the fortunately being over quite soon with no complications. Already I’m rolling my eyes. And trying to work out backstory that would excuse this situation–perhaps Superman’s mother didn’t know (since it’s been so long since anyone did this) how much it would hurt. Perhaps the people of Krypton did contrive a less painful way for women to give birth and the underwater babygardens were it. But the way the movie had chosen to fall back on unthinking cliche already set the tone for pretty much everything else.
  • A few minutes later Jor-El/Russell Crowe jumped off a building and fell a few floors before being picked up by his flying beastie. And it was … nothing, there was no sense of danger; the audience had seen this scene a million times before and the film knew it. Going through the motions. It was almost genius in that it not only managed to depress me about this movie, it managed to make every other summer blockbuster in which I’d seen that scene feel less meaningful (which is hard, considering summer blockbusters) as well.
  • To be fair, there’s not much variation in how you can depict a planet collapsing in on itself, but the end of Krypton looked a lot like the end of Vulcan in 2009′s Star Trek (a film which also had an annoying birth scene). After this we started seeing echoes to other big blockbustery movies everywhere. Lois falling backwards with blue light crackling behind her? The Avengers. Smallville fight scene? Thor. The leaping and crashing before Superman learns to fly? John Carter. I think there was a moment in there that looked like Looper. And collapsing buildings that looked like what feels like every big Hollywood movie of the last few years because everything must be about 9/11 forever.
  • I’m sure if I was more well-disposed towards this film I could say something here about the universality of the superhero story (and Superman is in so many ways the first superhero) but I’m not, so it just felt derivative and dull.
  • Flash forward to adult Clark Kent on Earth, shirtlessly saving people on a burning oil rig, flames all around him flickering on his lovely torso. Did I mention that he was shirtless? And has a lovely scruffy beard? And lovely chest hair which somehow (like his hair and beard) is not singed by the fire raging around him?
  • He then falls backwards, arms flung out, to look like Jesus. The Superman = Jesus imagery is not subtle. There is a scene with Clark in a church, with a stained glass representation of Jesus behind him. Not subtle. Lots of people have objected to this imagery–it’s not cleverly done, it’s not original, and as Chris Sims points out here, it’s particularly ineffective if your Jesus figure ends up taking out an entire city and then killing a guy.
  • But if there’s one thing this movie does well, it’s the gorgeous, stylised tableaux. Superman in Jesus pose, Superman against stained glass, Superman closing his eyes and turning his face to the sun in a moment that is straight out of classic comic book art. Superman in a ballpit of skulls when we discover that the inside of his head looks like a Beksiński painting.
  • These lovely tableaux all put together make the most dysfunctional, whiplash-causing flipbook imaginable.
  • What if Man of Steel had abandoned any pretense of being a mainstream summer superhero movie and had gone with some sort of daring, beautiful, religious film? Okay, it would probably still have been pretty bad.
  • Michael Shannon is pretty good. Amy Adams is pretty good and her Lois is more active and competent than I’d feared (Neither Nolan nor Snyder have impressed me with their ability to depict women in the past). Henry Cavill looks beautiful and would possibly have been good if given anything to do.
  • I feel like most of the second half of this film could have been dispensed with. This is probably true of most of the first half.
  • There’s one gorgeous minute in space where the camera manages to suspend gravity (and not in a showy, look at the 3D way) that I really liked.
  • At one point the scientist character says “Oh My God. They’re terraforming” and one of the military people who is hanging around says “what’s that?”
  • The movie manages to resist the emotional beat of letting the dog die.
  • I guess everyone on Krypton is white? And most people on Earth? There’s a bit where Superman has to fly to the other end of the planet and there’s a fisherman throwing a net and he’s probably brown but he’s in silhouette.
  • Everyone has already talked about the sheer, senseless violence of it. The last half-hour or so (was it longer? it felt longer) of the film has an extended fight sequence in which people fly in and out of buildings punching one another. There are no people, and at no point are we faced with the horrible idea that all this stuff going boom can in any way be affecting the people caught up in these battles. That people might die, lose things or people that are important to them.
  • The sheer consequenceless of the action is something other people have written about: see here, for example. I don’t know if there’s a conscious attempt to make films more palatable; I think we’re all just drifting into seeing violence as pure spectacle and that is terrifying.
  • Also this.
  • Having said which, I wasn’t awed at the spectacle at all. I was prepared to switch my brain off and embrace the adrenaline rush of the explosions but it never came. It felt like even here the film was going through the motions. I longed for Michael Bay, who at least blows things up with conviction.
  • China Mieville’s Embassytown has aliens called the Ariekei, who cannot understand language unless, as the words are being spoken, the consciousness behind them means them as well. I felt like one of the Ariekei. Or like someone not fluent in English was ve-ry-sl-o-w-ly-re-a-ding-or-sp-elling-out-a-sen-ten-ce.
  • The last time I was this unhappy watching a movie I was in a plane and the only movie they had was Bride Wars.
June 18, 2013

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, “The Whispering Trees”

(Terribly late with this one, sorry!)

The third of this year’s Caine Prize shortlistees. “The Whispering Trees” can be found here.

Context means a lot when you’re reading an author you don’t know. If you’re reading a slush pile you expect most submissions to be mediocre and you tend to only really notice the ones that stand out. If you’re reading an awards shortlist you expect most stories to be brilliant and if they’re not obviously so are willing to make the extra effort to hunt through them for what makes them good.”The Whispering Trees” has the most promising (lucid, deceptively simple) beginning and the most disappointing closing lines of any of the Caine prize finalists I’ve read so far, and I’m not sure what to think.

The story is about Salim, a young man who loses his eyesight in an accident, a month before he was to graduate from medical school and marry Faulata, the woman he loves. Having lost his mother, his career, and (he assumes) his fiancee all at once, he deals with his new situation first badly then well. Faulata stays and helps in a saintly fashion until she is no longer needed, then marries someone else. In recovering from this second great loss Salim discovers in himself the ability to see people’s souls though he can no longer see their faces; losing sight, he has gained insight.

A few here. Firstly, I suspect that if I was blind I’d be pissed off to learn that the magical power to see souls was an improvement I should be grateful for–but I guess that’s implicit in that whole blind prophet tradition, so perhaps it’s unfair to feel it more here than elsewhere.

Secondly, I’m not sure what the prose here is doing. Keguro Macharia’s post on the story is  very well worth reading, in this regard in particular.

Thirdly, those opening lines made me think for a moment that this story was in part fantasy or horror. I have a horrible habit of trying to read things that aren’t ‘really’ (whatever that means) SFF as belonging to the genre and I’m trying to resist the temptation to do so here. Because if it’s not a post-death story, it does have ghosts and supernatural powers. But the whispering trees that give the story its name and the possibly interesting dead childhood friend don’t feel to me like the focus here. What is the centre of the story then? Salim’s reconciling himself to his loss of eyesight, I suppose, and his difficulty with his faith in the wake of the tragedy.

On twitter a few days ago, Ben asked (half-jokingly? I guess? I don’t see why not?) if anyone was going to do a reading of “The Whispering Trees” as a sort of prequel to Tope Folarin’s “Miracles”. I’m not, but I think the juxtaposition of those two stories can be interesting. Because “Miracles” also touches on questions of faith, of personal (mis)fortune in the context of religion. Except that the religion of “Miracles” is something social; it’s something that acts within communities and it’s this quality that has our protagonist come out of the story uneasy. “The Whispering Trees” focuses almost entirely on the personal, and has its main character coming out of it obedient, contented, and with faith intact.

Saints are rarely fun to read about and I don’t like being preached to. I’ve been trying since I read it to come up with alternative narratives (none of them, I think, the story “The Whispering Trees” thinks it’s telling) that are more satisfactory to me. So the ghost story. The story where this story simultaneously debunks (he’s not possessed, he’s depressed; there isn’t a malevolent spirit haunting the trees) and affirms (the attempted exorcism does seem to help; there is a ghost haunting the trees) spiritual belief. The story where those opening lines are the truth; Salim is dead and the rest is all some sort of afterlife analogy.

None of them quite seems to stick. I keep thinking that all this story really comes down to is that weak last line: “I realise that happiness lies, not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you have.” I really don’t want that to be the case.

 

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As ever, other people’s thoughts on the story are here:

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva
Jeffrey Zuckerman
Veronica Nkwocha
Kate Maxwell
Scott Ross
Kola Tubosun
Keguro
Aaron
Ben Laden

 

June 14, 2013

Adi, Tantra

One of the things I’ve been waiting to see, with the current explosion of popular Indian literature, is popular genre fiction. What started out with Chetan Bhagat and the 100-rupee campus novel has grown into something bigger– Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy was massively successful; Srishti (publishers of about two-thirds of the awful campus novels out there) have just published Arka Chakrabarti’s The Secrets of the Dark, featuring a Mysterious Hooded Figure on the cover, and there exists something called Thundergod: The Ascendance of Indra by Rajiv S. Menon. My attempt a couple of months ago to read The Immortals of Meluha went horribly wrong, and yet I’m glad that series exists. Because very few of the Indian authors I know are genre snobs; most of them will happily read across genres and are fans of some major SFF authors that I like, and many will include speculative elements in their work. Samit Basu’s written some genuinely good epic fantasy, Anil Menon has written good SF, Nilanjana Roy even ventures into genre’s beloved talking cat territory. But it’s taken this, a series of books by (from the bits I’ve read) a not-very-good writer to really get popular genre fiction started, and now that this is a thing, it’s possible that some better writers may emerge.

In the meantime, there’s Tantra, by a writer known only as “Adi”. Tantra is an urban fantasy, set in Delhi, and is about a “guardian”/ vampire slayer named Anu Aggarwal who has come to Delhi to track down the murderer of her American boyfriend Brian. As Anu stumbles on a bigger mystery involving the disappearance of slum children in Delhi, she has to deal with other problems–like the loving aunt she’s staying with who insists on trying to arranged-marry her off. Anu has told her parents she’s gay to avoid marriage-related pressure from them, but in Delhi, it seems, coming out would be at least as scandalous as admitting to being a professional killer of vampires. (Indian queer people, like vampires, must be fictional).

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Tantra, but this is still a set-up that is full of comic potential. Unfortunately the writing makes some of the comedy rather less intentional than I suspect it was intended to be.

So on the first page we have Anu terribly dressed for the local climate and culture. “She’d worn her signature pleather pants, midriff-baring halter top, and cashmere-lined leather jacket for the occasion”. This is already awful, and it’s only slightly mitigated by the fact that the book clearly sees the humour in anyone walking around Delhi dressed like this. Her partner Amit ridicules her, and

“The toughest battle she’d fought was with an elderly couple convinced she was an upscale prostitute who needed saving. After an hour of explaining that leather was not the temptress guise of a lost soul and that she had in fact read the Ramayana, she’d nearly staked them”.

Because I am a lazy person, here are some of the quotes I ended up saving as I read this.

On Anu’s Guardian-angst: “She tried to remember what it had been like when she was more intimate with the smell of uttapams than the smell of blood.”

A character introducing himself: “the quintessential scotch-drinking Indian hypocrite male.”

A character explaining why Indian men don’t hit on women in clubs: “The Indian gentleman is always discreet to a fault.” (you can all stop laughing now)

Anu, lamenting the difficulty of conversations with the man you have a crush on: “It was hard to talk to Gaurav, who continually and wittily flirted with her on the phone.”

A battle: “The vampire preferred to use his hands rather than a weapon, and Anu’s knives kept finding stray limbs to cut.”

Anu’s don’t-call-me-guru guru, lending her his strength: “A gush of crimson threads from his hand invaded her body.”

Some sexy talk:

After Anu grabs the testicles of a man who attempted to chat her up:

(Drink every time Anu punches one of her male companions in the shoulder)

Anu herself is (of course) superlatively fair-skinned (enough that she was pale by American standards) and beautiful enough that every young male in the book, be he dead ex boyfriend, colleague, potential husband, potential husband’s brother, or chief vampire, has a crush. She’s also superpowered beyond the abilities of most Guardians. I think this is as much a problem of this genre as it is of this particular book, but it still caused me to roll my eyes.

For all its various badnesses, though, Tantra makes me realise how starved I am of genre fiction set in worlds I know. A few months ago I read a really good Zen Cho story in which a character is wearing white Bata shoes to school and I remember those shoes, and that they cost rs 80 when I was ten years old and somehow this really mattered. Tantra is set in my city; Anu’s aunt lives about ten minutes away from me and the plot mostly moves between south and central Delhi. And so I did genuinely laugh when Nina aunty was safe from the vampires invading her house because she’d shifted to a more vaastu-compliant bedroom, and I was very pleased when the violet line of the Delhi metro made a cameo (accompanied by an India-Shining-esque bit about how much better it is than New York’s subway). There’s a rather unbelievable bit where the characters manage to do a complete circle of Ring Road in 15 minutes in a Honda City, and a mention of there being “hundreds of white Maruti cars” which would make me wonder, were it not for the Metro reference, if the author had been in Delhi since the mid-90s at all.

There’s a genuine attempt to combine vampire lore with Hinduism and without falling into a Hinduism Is The One Truth trap– though conveniently, pretty much every character (except poor Karim, who is a noneity) is at least nominally Hindu.

There’s a scene in which a disgraced vampire is strung up in public with a sign attached to his belt that reads “Cock-a-doodle-doo, behnchotes”. I almost want this book to be made into a movie purely so that this can be its tagline.

In short, it’s terrible and I will probably still read the sequel.

June 13, 2013

Lucy Boston, The Children of Green Knowe

This is not a Rasa of Yearniness post, or not really, Kip.

From this week’s column.

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The haunted house is such a classic (and effective) trope in literature because we believe that places matter. Ghosts wherever they are, mean history; that a place is supposed to be haunted is a constant reminder that it has had a past. Things have happened here. Quite apart from the inherent uncanniness of spirits that can move things around, the idea of ghosts is a reminder that we cannot entirely control our surroundings. We will never be the first to experience a place.

One house that can lay claim to a long history is The Manor, in Cambridgeshire, England. It is supposed to be one of the oldest continually-habited houses in the country, having been built almost a thousand years ago. The Manor was also home for many years to the author Lucy Boston, who used it as the setting for the six books in her “Green Knowe” series.

I don’t know if there are any stories of ghosts that haunt The Manor, but its fictional counterpart certainly has them in abundance. The first book, The Children of Green Knowe, has seven year old Toseland (“Tolly” for short) arriving for the first time at his great-grandmother’s ancestral home. Almost immediately he begins to sense the presence of other children, though he cannot yet see them.  Green Knowe continues to be the home of three children who lived during the 1600s; Anthony, Linnet and Toby (another Toseland). As Tolly learns to see these distant relatives in more definite ways than out of the corner of his eye, he also learns more about the history of this house and of his own family.

Some of my favourite books, particularly children’s books, have as their background a feeling of quiet yearning. It’s in invoking this feeling that Boston’s great achievement lies. Not much actually happens in The Children of Green Knowe, but something about this book is pure, distilled childhood. It’s in Tolly’s immediate acceptance of the very strange world he has come to live in, in the elusiveness of companions who cannot always be directly looked at, the equal parts of fear and longing. Death exists in this world, and so do curses, and sadness and fear are inevitable even for adults. But above and around them exists a sense of safety, of being in the right place.  To read The Children of Green Knowe is to remember that “nostalgia” is from the Greek for homecoming—Tolly comes home to family, history, even to his own name. For this alone it might just be the perfect children’s book.

There’s also something rather special happening with time. Play that involves companions who might disappear at any moment may seem transient; and read from my (now) adult perspective so may this whole business of childhood itself. But on a larger scale things stay remarkably unchanged in this little world. Children’s play appears to have stayed constant across centuries so that Tolly is able to communicate immediately with these distant relatives. The house is unchanged. Even the faithful retainer is the descendant of his predecessor in the position—apparently the Boggis family have been content to be loyal servants for centuries. (One wonders if the Boggis children get to have similarly nostalgic adventures). Green Knowe is also known as “Green Noah”; the house is surrounded by a moat and we first see it during a flood. It’s tempting to see Green Knowe as a sort of time-ark, carrying within it the past, and preserving it into the future. Is it even really a haunted house when the past, present and future exist together in this protected space? I’m not sure.

As a child I was terrified of ghosts—to the point that a single nightmare could have me in tears regularly for months after. But as a child I had not yet read The Children of Green Knowe, and I wonder if that could have changed things.

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