Her Secret Blue Book

Of Books, Writers & Writing

“He stubbed out the cigarette. A wisp of smoke curled up briefly and died. Priya got up and put on a shirt and a pair of palazzos. Then she sat on the rumpled bed again, her chin resting on her knees, her eyes vacant, her hands clasped like manacles around her slim ankles.”

Erotica as a genre is tricky. A writer writing in this genre needs to romanticize and glorify the act of sex. Or, she risks taking the shine out of love-making. Erotica-writing also necessitates doing something different and refreshing with language. If possible, bring in a new dimension to what goes on behind locked doors (not always though).

The Swap by Shuma Raha does both. Masterfully describing sex scenes — the emotional turmoil, desire, lust, et al; she also succeeds in removing the monotony out of a story, which relies heavily on using a taboo topic to craft an interesting narrative — by adding that extra shine in the language department.

This medium-length novel does rise above being mere erotica, but crushed by the parameters it wants to fit into and created to tell a story; the story per se falls short of becoming extraordinary.

Now, for the story. Priya is married to Akash. She falls for Dileep. Ends up having an affair with him. And attending swinger parties. Dileep’s wife Anuradha also joins in — to take revenge in the beginning, later willingly. From there on, after a dramatic meltdown, they form a happy foursome and it is at this point — when they have come to an agreement of swapping their wives, that this story turns into a profound exploration of human psyche and an eye-opening treatise to the polygamous versus monogamous debate, that has been part of urban, educated middle class living-room conversations.

When the going is great, comes the climax and the insipid ending. The reader might find the ending as unexpected but it definitely does read like a meek attempt to bring an end to a tale, which wasn’t destined to have a happy ending. After all, a tale of adultery shouldn’t have a happy ending, isn’t it? Also won’t a lived-happily-forever end to Priya’s story make us empathize less with her!

My grouse: When the theme is this bold, why can’t the conclusion be as well?

I don’t read Indian writing much. Truth be told, this was my fourth book by an Indian author. I picked this book up because of it’s bold plot line. But, but, and here is the hard part, I can’t claim that I am glad, I did. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the writing. Sample this:

“Never having seen snowfall before, Priya had been thrilled with the flecks of white crystal that floated soundlessly down. She had stood in the violet frost of the twilight, feeling the snow melt on her face in needle-points of cold.”

But I ain’t sold on the conclusion. Or, impressed by the pace of the narrative. It does gravely slow down in the middle. Thankfully though and in the book’s defense, it doesn’t turn preachy or into a social commentary at any point.

All in all, a must read, if you are looking to explore Indian contemporary fiction and are intrigued by the concept of swapping.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The bold theme of the book. Kudos, Shuma!
  2. The writing. Oh, I am in love with the writing.
  3. The character arcs of Priya, Dileep and Anuradha.

Misses:

  1. The ending. To me it seemed like playing to the gallery.
  2. The length of the book. The slowing down in the middle.
Buy The Swap on amazon

“There are scars on my heart, just as disfiguring, as thick as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.”

How many books have you read, which makes loneliness its central theme? Tell me about a book, a mainstream book nevertheless, which makes an unusual, lonely, scarred young woman — its main protagonist.

This book does exactly that and much, much more. Eleanor Oliphant has a job. She has a steady routine:

Go to work. Work hard for five days. Buy two bottles of Vodka on Fridays. And talk to her oddball Mom on Wednesdays.

Eleanor has no friends. No boyfriend. And, she is besotted with a pop star, whom she stalks online and later offline as well.

She is weird. Quite obviously not a smooth talker, is witty and takes pride in minding her business. And, and (here is what makes the book a standout) she is incredibly, immeasurably, undeniably lonely.

So what happens to this incredibly ordinary woman, you would ignore and never pay attention to, even in passing? Does kindness and love find a way to reach her and heal the scars, she is trying so hard to hide? Well, read the book, if you haven’t already to find out. Trust me you won’t regret it.

There must be a reason why Reese Witterspoon decides on buying the rights to the book and co-produces it too.

Eleanor Oliphant’s (this is not her real name though) story is worth every penny and page. A tale of acute loneliness, it made me weep inconsolably. This is writing at its ingenuous best. I must confess on days, I had to discard the book — it was akin to staring too hard in the mirror.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. The hidden humor.
  2. Detailed exploration of loneliness.
  3. Eleanor’s dedication to her job. Despite everything and everyone.
  4. The little, little things that bring us joy. And that has been highlighted so well in this book.

Misses:

  1. Why, oh why, did the book have to end?
  2. What happens to Eleanor? Give us a sequel, please.
Buy Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

“I felt like killing my father, but I didn’t want him to die.”

This is a novel you will remember. Deliciously dark, wickedly funny at the most unusual junctures, shocking at times, gloomy at length and startlingly smart, Moshfeigh takes us on a journey of a woman you won’t meet quite often. And even if you do, you will never guess what’s going on in her mundane, tedious, seemingly normal life.

Eileen detests herself. She is a misfit and invisible in her home town, which she flippantly(or grudgingly) calls X-Ville. She has a love-hate relationship with her alcoholic, ex-cop father, with whom she lives and takes care of (mostly buying the liquor he demands). She crushes over a handsome, spunky prison guard she can’t have. And is captivated by the red-headed, sophisticated, sweet-talking Rebecca, who sashays into her life and her morbid workplace.

Rebecca’s entry and the subsequent unfolding of events transforms this book into a psychological thriller. But, the language and those sentences — intricately crafted and masterfully executed made me stop reading and mark the pages and paras with a pencil. It’s a rarity to find a novel which on the surface is a thriller, but at the heart of it, a literary masterpiece.

Not to forget, the character development is top-notch. Without a shred of doubt Eileen and her father are the most developed, layered, honest and real of all the characters.

To sum it up, this self-hating, quick-witted, introverted young woman wants to live her town, her abusive father and her life behind. How does she do it? Does she succeed? More importantly, does Eileen end up liking herself? Read the book to find out.

In Hindsight…

Hits:

  1. Eileen, Eileen and Eileen. Her well-etched character. Her quirks. Her journey from being an underdog to emerging as a self-assured young woman.
  2. The toxic, honest and disturbing relationship with her father.
  3. The lack of drama. Realistic setting. Dialogues. Subplots. Treatment.
  4. The luminous writing.

Misses:

  1. The time taken to build suspense.
  2. Lack of enough plot twists to keep the reader glued.
Buy Eileen on amazon

“She read stuff as he could give it to her. And when she handed it back to him the next morning, she always acted as if she were handing him something fragile. Something precious. You wouldn’t even know that she touched the comics except for the smell.”

I can’t remember the last time I wanted a book not to end. Simply because the journey was so amazing. Even though I am happy that now I can return to writing, I am heartbroken about having to say goodbye to Eleanor and Park. Romance as a genre I thought was losing its sheen, I was so disillusioned with every book I had been picking up in the past few years. I am so glad that I have been proved wrong. This is more than young adult fiction. It’s a story that will make you believe in all that’s lovely about love.

Narrated in third person this is the story of a teenage girl who struggles to find herself at home and in school. She meets Park while travelling on the same bus to school. And over music they bond. But, there is something terribly wrong in Eleanor’s life. There is someone closer at home who is trying to break her down and cause her harm. Does she survive? Does she find love?

Buy Eleanor & Park on amazon

The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra.”

Says Mr Cheong, husband of Yeong-hye who has all of a sudden decided on giving up on meat. She has turned vegetarian.

Why?

Well, by using the recurring dream technique, where Yeong-hye’s inner thoughts and desires are narrated, author Han Kang tells us that Hye is terrified of a particular incident where she sees a close family member slaughtering animals. This coupled with her predicament of eating too much meat makes her abstain from eating anything fleshy.

“Something is stuck in my solar plexus.” She explains. “I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged permanently there these days. Even though I’ve stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale it doesn’t go away…Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Nobody can help me. Nobody can save me. Nobody can make me breathe.

From this point of no return our protagonist moves ahead, only to flower into a tree after her physical form perishes. In between what happens to her husband — who finds his dull, usual, boring, unattractive wife losing her mind. Her family who don’t understand her transition and at one point push her into eating meat, making her in desperation and humiliation cut her wrist.

Only her brother in law who is an artist seems to treat her affectionately. But, when he learns from his wife, In-hye, Yeong-hye’s elder sister that she has a Mongolian birthmark, he becomes obsessed with her.

“The Mongolian mark on her buttocks became inexplicably bound up with the image of men and women having sex, their naked bodies completely covered with painted flowers.” He confesses in the second chapter titled the Mongolian Mark, which unfolds through his narration.

His obsession with her and its devastating outcome forms the most interesting part of the story.

In the third and final chapter titled Flaming Trees, In-hye goes looking for her sister, who has run away from the hospital she was admitted to — in an attempt to save her from dying. Despite her repeated attempts to feed her and make her see reason, she fails. In a heart-rending moment, Yeong-hye asks a grieving In-hye:

“Why is it such a bad thing to die?”

In the time In-hye spends with her younger sister, she introspects about their shared past. She questions her family’s violent and aggressive ways manifested not only through their non-vegetarianism but also in the merciless beating of a young, docile and naive Yeong-hye by her ill-tempered father. Their violent ways, she realises has caused irreversible damage to her sensitive sister.

The Vegetarian is a multi-layered story:

  • It’s a story of a married woman who believes that she is turning into a tree and the repercussions of her transformation — when she begins flowering into a flaming tree leaving her identity as a human behind.
  • It’s a story of two sisters and their husbands.
  • An ode to the unbreakable sisterly bond. Of sisterhood.
  • A tale of rebellion. In-hye’s stern belief and abstention stems from the reality she finds herself in and serves as an escape and an act of protest from a soul-crunching truth, she can’t accept.
  • A reflection on perpetrated violence and its ill-effects.
  • To me, above all it is a true-blue feminist tale.

Hits:

  1. Unique plot, compelling narration, surreal and disturbing impact.
  2. It’s a translated work, a short book (novella) and the narration is ethereal, visceral, poetic and mesmerizing. Yes, I have to mention narration, twice. It’s that good.
  3. The length is just right. Anything more in words would have diluted the impact of the story.

Misses:

  1. I gravely miss the dearth of such short and incandescent works.

Dear Han Kang,

I can’t wait to lay my hands on your next book.

Buy The Vegetarian on amazon