bookreviews.gif (663 bytes)top

issue 33: Nov - Dec 2002

home | navigation | índice | índexback issues | links

index of book reviews for all issues

Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK  carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by unless otherwise noted.
Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee: THEIA/Hyperion, 2002

Mukherhjee (Jasmine, Leave it to Me) is at her best in this latest novel of cultural clashes between East and West, specifically Calcutta and San Francisco. The narrator, Tara Bhattacharjee, the youngest of three "desirable daughters," was born into an upper-caste Hindu Bengali family. She had a proper "English" education in a private Catholic school in Calcutta and was married, by arrangement, at age 19 to Bish Chatterjee, "the poster boy of Indian entrepreneurship." The couple immigrated to the U.S. (Silicon Valley) where Bish graduated from Stanford and went on to develop a brilliant bandwidth concept which revolutionized the computer world. He is worth millions, currently presiding over a huge Microsoft-like corporation.

Tara, who had embraced the freedom of American life, begins to feel a lack of independence due to her Hindu husband’s notions that a woman should not work, etc. The couple divorce, but stay in touch. Tara has moved to San Francisco with her fully acculturated teenaged son and the two live in a funky house in the heart of the city. She is living a complacent life until one day a sinister boy appears in her home as a guest of her son. He says he is Chris Dey and he is looking for Tara’s eldest sister, Padma, who he claims is his mother.

Tara is positively outraged. It is unthinkable that her sister could have become pregnant and had a child. She suspects the boy of trying to set up a scam of some sort and is immediately on the alert. Both her son and her current lover sensibly ask why she doesn’t simply call her sister and discuss the accusation. This is something, however, that women of their background would never do. Unpleasant business, especially family business, is swept under the rug and considered a forbidden topic of conversation. Still, as Chris becomes more insistent (and more insolent), and as Tara thinks more about it, she feels obliged to report the matter to the police and do some investigating of her own. The Indian officer assigned to her informs Tara that there is a rash of gangs in the States from India who prey on Indians with money. She is a very wealthy woman (although she doesn’t live in high style), her son has a huge trust fund, and her husband is the richest Indian in the States. The officer feels her family is a target, perhaps for a kidnapping. Like the earthquake tremors of San Francisco, the evil gangs of India - another part of its culture, like the destroyer side of Shiva - will forever pose a threat. As Mukherjee points out, an American can always feel some sense of security, but everything can be pulled out from under the immigrant - in this case by their own culture, which created caste and class systems: something they, the elite, benefited from while growing up, but which has now come back to haunt them.

Tara has always been in touch with her sisters, but they only speak about superficial matters, so it is with great effort that she picks up the phone to call her middle sister, Parvati, who lives in a plush high-rise in Calcutta. Parvati blithely acts as though she doesn’t hear what’s being said and passes on to another subject, the message being: forget this business, leave it alone and don’t ever mention it. Tara senses she knows more than she’ll talk about.

As the situation becomes more ominous, Tara is finally forced to call her eldest sister, Padma, who lives in New Jersey and is also very wealthy. Padma is "more Indian" now than she was in Calcutta, wearing saris, socializing with the Indian elite of the area, etc. Tara bluntly states - in American fashion - why she is calling. Padma, of course, is also evasive. Tara then flies to New Jersey to make a personal visit. Padma continues to refuse to acknowledge anything, although she does concede to an "incident" in her past, but why talk about it? This interlude is a particularly entertaining one. Padma whisks Tara off for a shopping spree in Jackson Heights, New York’s Indian district for the elite. She insists Tara buy some fashionable saris, get her hair done, buy some gold jewellery, etc. A big Indian house party follows, in which Tara, dressed in her Indian finery, becomes flirtatious with the men, enjoying her role. While on the east coast, however, she receives some highly disturbing news from the San Francisco detective and the tension mounts, building to a fiery climax.

When all is said and done, Tara and her son - who has confessed he is gay - travel back to India to stay with Parvati and explore their roots. The gay son business may sound like a concession to contemporary pop fiction, but in fact it is not. During the course of the novel, we discover a whole substratum of Indian men in America, who are clever and wealthy but not quite right for the "marriage market." Many of them, however, have taken wives, as a front, and so everyone continues to live the lie. At least Tara’s son is removed from this hypocrisy. In an amusing scene at the end, he is reading a book of poems written by some disciples of Ramakrishna, and comments: "These guys are so gay, I can’t believe it. Doesn’t anyone ever talk about it?" To which Tara replies: "Yes, you have understood it all."

This is a rich and rewarding novel (less fantastical than the over-the-top Leave It To Me) that speaks volumes of the cultural differences between the Indian and American way of life. Mukherjee gives us a vivid picture of the India of her childhood - a world that no longer exists - and probes the effect of this upbringing on the three sisters. The structure on which the Indian social world is built appears (and is) hypocritical, which may tend to make the two older sisters seem superficial, although they are both fairly complex characters. What it does to Tara is reveal huge  contradictions in her outlook (she agrees with her son, for example, that she should call her sisters about Chris Dey, but her Calcutta upbringing renders that approach impossible - at least at first). She’s not a jolly character; she’s carrying around a huge weight, being pulled in two different directions, although there is some self-knowledge gained at the end. Desirable Daughters doesn’t offer up the "feel good" comfort that one finds in the cross-cultural bestsellers of Amy Tan or Meera Syal. Mukherjee’s characters are more complicated and a bit darker, but all the more human for that. Overall, a marvellous exploration of first generation Indian-American culture-clash identity, with an intriguing conspiracy theme that will keep you turning the pages. J.A.

From Blue To Black by Joel Lane: Serpent’s Tail, 2003 (reprint)

I missed this the first time round (2000) – god knows how as the music scene is right up my alley and the story mentions familiar locales where I’ve either played or seen friends play - so this new edition from Serpent’s Tail is more than welcome. Lane has built himself a reputation as a short-fiction ‘horror’ writer, but his first novel takes us back to the Birmingham (UK) of the early 90s and its local rock scene. It centers on the story of one such band, Triangle, and the love affair between the singer Karl and the new bassist, David. First-person narrator David, with his blues-based background, helps give the shoe-gazing Triangle a stronger, tighter edge, but the lyrics from his new lover baffle both him and the audience. Karl is a mixed bag: once married and with a kid, he is now openly gay but will bed anything with two legs. He has a dark, violent past that begins to surface more and more often as the band, slowly making a name for itself, turn to the usual rock ‘n’ roll pastime/work pleasures of booze and drugs. Luckily for those around Karl the violence seems mostly directed at himself. As Karl becomes ever more unglued, David begins to understand some of the lyric references, but others won’t make sense until he discovers the whole truth behind his lover. What brings this simple enough plot to life is the ring of authenticity given to Triangle. This has to be one of the best books written about the lower end of the industry and is certainly the first novel about rock music that I have been able to relate to. The band's reviews or interviews in magazines like the N.M.E read like the genuine thing, as do the names of record labels and other bands. All is terribly feasible, so much so that at the back of the book there is a discography of the band and its various offshoots with a mention of a remix done by Goldie. It was such a come-on that I had to do a Google search . . . and, of course, it turned up blank.

If the rock angle helped give the story credibility, then Lane’s evocation of Birmingham, the Black Country and other areas, further adds to the overall authenticity. Birmingham, at the best of times, is a mystery city. All the street names seem to lead out of it to other places – Bristol Road, Warwick Road and so on. Area names like Moseley remind one of a fascist leader and a venue called The Fighting Cocks speaks for itself. Lane has blended the dark, decaying industrial Birmingham with leafy canal walks and Balti restaurants to paint a bucolic-urban landscape as an intriguing, if not a little foreboding, place. Unsurprising, the word ‘rot’ crops up throughout the book but not so ‘daylight’. As a band’s life is mostly nocturnal or shut away in soundproofed rooms, daylight is a rarity and treated as such: dawn light soaks through a curtain and clothes are collected ‘before admitting daylight into a room’. Dark stuff indeed, but a compelling story in a totally believable scenario that begs to be read in one sitting. M.G.S.

The Blue Mask by Joel Lane: Serpent’s Tail, 2003

Fans of Lane’s first novel, From Blue to Black (see above) may have a wee bit of an uphill struggle with his second. There is certainly familiar territory: it’s set in Birmingham, centres around the ups and downs of a gay relationship, with a whiff of bisexuality, and is dark and moody. At one point the two books are linked by someone playing the Triangle LP and by a story concerning a Parisian hotel’s attitude toward gays, although the latter is out of whack timewise and concerns different characters. The difference is that Blue to Black, with its music background and bass-player-meets-new-band beginning, quickly kicked off into the story, whereas The Blue Mask bides its time, gently setting up the main protagonist, Neil, his relationships with lover Matt and various other students at Birmingham University. There’s space given to the books he is reading and on his rather predictable student politics. Neil is a basically OK, typical, young, good-looking student - he looks like a cross between Morrissey and Johnny Marr, which, apparently, makes him attractive to both sexes - and he is aware of his pulling power.

After a spat with Matt, Neil thinks a fling with a stranger might even things up, but the stranger does rather nasty things to Neil’s face with a broken bottle. The road to recovery - mentally, physically and sexually - is going to be a long one. One route that Neil takes is the tracking down of his attacker. This means an end with Matt, a new name (Jason – think ‘mask’) and screwing everything in Birmingham to get answers from the pillow talk afterwards. It also means run-ins with some very odd characters who help out in the strangest of ways. The most satisfying part of the book for me is the excellent outcome, which obviously I can’t comment on here.

At the start of the book Neil has written a play and is rehearsing it with fellow students as actors. It’s an ambitious piece, embarrassing for its pretentiousness, typical of the sort of naive stuff a student would write, thinking that at age 20 (or less) they totally understand the world based solely on the books they’ve read. Neither the scriptwriter nor the actors have the worldly experience, let alone the technical know-how, to pull it off; and it’s a disaster. Apart from giving the novel a ‘coming of age’ angle, as Neil begins to learn from life, not books, one feels that Lane, here and in other parts of the book, is either having a dig at students in general – they are often insulted - or offering them a kind of sympathy. I couldn’t decide which, but it added another layer of discord to the gay/straight, urban/rural mix.

The critical acclaim given to From Blue to Black must have made the prospect of the second novel even more daunting, and the end result, for me, is a literarily stronger book than the first, but one that is darker, more brooding, and not as immediate. It will be interesting to see in what direction this talented author will go for his third novel. M.G.S.

© 2002The Barcelona Review
Back to top | Home | Índice | ĚndexBack Issues | Links


 tbr 33           november - december  2002

Short Fiction

Adam Johnson:Trauma Plate
Pedro de Jesús:The Letter
Steve Aylett: Never Talk to Strangers
pick from back issues
Deirdre Heddon:Still Life
Mark Anthony Jarman:Cougar


Children's Literature
Raymond Carver
- Answers

Book Reviews Bharati Mukherjee, Joel Lane x2

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

Home | Submission info | Spanish | Catalan | French | Audio | e-m@il