I am now juggling 4 shortlists: Bailey’s, BTBA, IFFP and The Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize. I only intend reading the latter in full and from the TBR for the others. This means slow progress and being behind the curve for a while but for some reason, I’m more interested in my TBR than anything else at the moment.
Even so, since the Bailey’s longlist was announced, I have read the astounding total of just two titles. Still both were good choices.
I didn’t think so during the first few chapters of Deborah Kay Davies’s Reasons She Goes to the Woods, which had more than a few oh-lordy-I-really-hope-I-imagined-that moments. Thankfully these were short but they were disturbing. The story of Pearl is told in a sequence of one page episodes as an abstracted contemporary fairy tale. But this is not Walt Disney. This is a very Grimm world, one in which Pearl is the wicked witch: the female foil to Lionel Schriver’s Kevin. There is a dawning awareness that Pearl’s obsession with Daddy is not just that of a daddy’s girl. Nor that the external cause of her mother’s mental issues is very far away. What I didn’t understand and thought not quite real was the adulation which the other kids bestowed on Pearl, even in the face of some breathtaking cruelty. Still that, I suppose is the mark of a true sociopath. Control and manipulation are second nature, though there comes a time when you can’t kid all of the people all of the time and the comeuppance becomes inevitable …..It’s very satisfying watching someone like that get their just desserts … as in Grimm, so to in Davies.
Jumpha Lahiri’s The Lowland is as different in tone and structure as is possible to imagine: a story of how the political can clash with the personal with repercussions reverberating through the years. It begins in Calcutta with the brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who become politically active during the 1960’s. Udayan joins the radical Naxalite movement, while Subhash leaves to study in America. Udayan’s commitment costs him his life and he leaves a young pregnant widow, whom Subhash subsequently marries to save her from the bleakness that would await her in India. He brings her daughter up as his own and, after Gauri abandons the family to pursue her own career, he brings her up alone. Now that may be a spoiler but I don’t think the focus is on the plot. Lahiri’s interest lies in the relationships: parents-child, brother-brother, husband-wife, emigrant-home country, immigrant-adopted country. As the story moves forward in time, she peels back the layers of history to reveal the truth behind Udayan’s death in the Lowland. Without doubt it is the pivotal moment in the lives of all the major characters and it is not until the very end of the novel that we discover the detail of what led to it. The telling is very fluid and accomplished, but for me, it became just another dysfunctional family story once Subhash and Gauri had married. Neither is there the kick that Davies has injected that makes the story memorable.
I am obviously missing something. The Lowland was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and has now been shortlisted for the Bailey’s. But, if this were a rooster-like bout, I’d be putting Davis through to the next round. I find some weeks after reading both novels, that the whole of Reasons She Goes to The Woods adds up to more than the sum of its episodic parts.
Reasons She Goes to The Woods / The Lowland