Sunday, January 25, 2015

Re-telling a classic - Bhima Lone Warrior

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

To keep my resolution to read more Indian regional language fiction, (obviously in translation, since tragically my knowledge of the Indian languages I know – Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi – is so superficial, it would take enormous patience to read in the original), I picked up this one by MT. I had heard of it from my mother and I knew this was a book I would enjoy. I mean, how could you not enjoy a re-telling of the Mahabharata? And if it was a re-telling by one of the all-time greats, it had to be good, right?
I loved it. It is the Mahabharata from Bhima’s perspective. The Bhima we know is huge, with a large appetite, very strong, very short-tempered and utterly devoted to his family. We don’t give him much thought except as the muscle man of the Pandavas. MT’s Bhima is all of this; but he is also introspective and intelligent, a brooding, sensitive giant, somewhat of an outsider, with an ability to see his mother and brothers and wife with all of their flaws, yet unable to ever walk away.
The stories are all so very familiar. But MT strips them of any of the ‘divinity’ we have come to expect from them. Kunti’s 6 lovers who beget her sons are not really gods, but mortals whose special qualities are transferred to her sons. Krishna is not particularly divine – he is just a canny, politically astute friend. There is no divine help for Draupadi when she is disrobed – Dhritarashtra is prevailed upon to stop the dishonour. We are told in the epilogue that there are hints of these in the original, and that MT has just added his bit of imagination to re-tell them. The re-telling transforms the Mahabharata into an absorbing but simple tale of tribal warfare, a tale that has been embellished by bards with every re-telling, until we get to the epic it is today.
In some ways, this is a very subversive tale. Bhima sees the injustice women are subjected to – be it his own treatment of Hidimbi and Balandhara or Arjuna’s dalliances with his innumerable women. He also sees the inequality the ‘forest-dwellers’ have to deal with – as with his own son Ghatotkacha who Krishna sacrifices for Arjuna or the forest dwellers whose dead bodies take their place in the fire that consumes the palace of lac. He is also cynical about the philosophy Krishna spouts (that becomes the Gita), saying that when your own sons and brothers die, it is difficult to see the bodies their souls have cast away as ‘discarded clothes’.  
MT’s Bhima sees the cowardice and double standards in his older brother’s ‘Dharma’. He knows how manipulative his mother is – be it sacrificing forest dwellers in the lac house fire, or asking Draupadi to be shared between the five brothers or using Karna’s back story to save her sons’ lives. He knows his own weak spot – Draupadi, who is turned on by stories of violence, who manipulates him to get what she wants, yet who never gives him the love he craves. He keeps his distance from Krishna, who he knows is his younger brother’s greatest friend, but understanding his political machinations, as well.
This is an all-seeing Bhima, but one who never shirks from doing what he needs to do for his family. He knows war is inevitable, craves for it to avenge the injustice done to Draupadi and his family and when it comes, gives it his all. And at the end, on the Pandavas’ quest to reach heaven, he is unable to not turn back to pick up his beloved Draupadi as she falls, and so sacrifices his entry to heaven.
It is a fascinating character study – it surprises and delights, as you see these stories you have heard from childhood in a new light. There is poetry in the descriptions of the landscapes. And ultimately, the tale in the hands of a master storyteller is un-put-down able. Maybe I should find the patience to read this in the original.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Fishy Tales

Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast
By Samanth Subramanian

You read a book like this and you are reminded once more that there is little as compelling as truly good travel writing - delving into the idiosyncrasies of people and places with genuine curiosity and empathy, working with journalistic rigor yet bringing in a subjective viewpoint, combining good writing with unexpected insight.Subramanian’s first attempt at a book is an extremely interesting one.
He works his way around the long Indian coastline - Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, moving to the west, to Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat. Every state has a story to tell Subramanian, unique yet strangely connected, interesting tales, bringing to life both the diversity of the Indian subcontinent and the commonality of the life on a coast.
In Bengal, he writes about the Bengali obsession with hilsa (“If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court”) - the right way to chew it, separating the bones from the flesh within the mouth; the difference between the Bangladeshi and the Bengali hilsa; its availability year long, rather than just during the monsoon in an earlier time; and its preparation in the delectable shorsha ilish.
In Hyderabad (not really the coast, but close enough to warrant a fishy tale), Subramanian encounters India’s predilection for faith-cures. The Bathini Goud family’s cure for asthma includes a medical preparation stuffed into a live fish that you then need to swallow - live. Subramanian leaves it to the reader to decide if this is the real thing or plain old quackery.
In the Tamil Nadu coast, he meets the Paravas, an old fishing community converted to Christianity by the Portuguese but whose Christianity is mostly a veneer that envelopes age-old Hindu customs. “There is syncretism in language, in how words such as ‘kovil’ and ‘aradhana’, traditionally intended for temples and Hindu celebrations of worship, are now applied to churches and Catholic feasts. There is syncretism in practice,in the lighting of lamps instead of candles, in the full-stretch prostrations that men performed at Our Lady of Snows, in conducting both the Hindu valakappu ceremony for pregnant women and Christian baptism for newborn babies, even in the respectful act of leaving one’s shoes outside the entrance of the church. And sometimes, there is syncretism in thought, in how a Christian fisherman still propitiates the Hindu god Murugan and refers to him ‘Machaan’ or ‘brother-in-law’, because Murugan’s wife Devayani came from Parava stock - at least according to a Parava legend that has somehow been comfortably ensconced within another faith for five hundred years now.”
In Kerala, Subramanian goes in search of the perfect toddy and realizes that ‘the best toddy, toddy that is fresh and untouched by base additives, should taste only marginally less mild than milk, with a slight sweetness, a faint note of ferment, and the occasional granule of coconut husk.” He is introduced to a world where work can literally stop for toddy, where certain types of it are rigidly sold only to certain types of people, where toddy food is only meant to increase your appetite for toddy itself, where the fish fried in coconut oil is truly an acquired taste and where toddy can make sworn brothers of men who otherwise were vastly different.
In Karnataka, he goes looking for his childhood memory of the perfect Mangalorean fish curry - and finds it after considerable effort in the home of a local official of a Mangalorean fisherman’s co-operative. In a small town between Goa and Maharashtra, he goes fishing for the fastest fish in the sea - the sailfish. He does not find one, but in the process, he gives his readers a peek into the joys of recreational fishing - “The sight of a worthy catch is breathlessly anticipated; the thrill of the sport resides in how suddenly it can turn. But for the rest of the time, the art of fishing is really the art of waiting in thin disguise - waiting not only from hour to hour, as we were doing at sea, or from day to day, as with the fisherman Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but even from year to year, as for the annual Indian variation of the sailfish. There is no room in the boat for impatience; I can’t think of any other sport that so effectively screens its participants on the basis of a single quality of temperament.”
In Goa, Subramanian finds an entire lifestyle slowly disappearing - where the traditional fisherfolk are giving up their ancient fishing jobs for the easier and more lucrative jobs generated by the tourism industry, where the sand of the beaches is fast disappearing into new construction, where the oh-so-authentic Goan shack culture is actually so completely inauthentic, and where the seas have been so over-fished by trawlers and mechanized boats that most of Goa’s fish is now actually brought in from neighbouring states.
In Maharashtra, he goes looking for the Koli community, the original Mumbaikars, and their food. And discerns the difference between Gomantak and Malvani cuisine, while discovering also the Koli challenge to chicken soup - the Nisot. And in Gujarat, Subramanian meets the boat makers, people who have been making boats for generations, with little change in technique.
In his journey along the coast, Subramanian realizes that inspite of the differences he finds across states, what really surprises him is the discovery of similarities - the livelihoods rising and falling with the fishing calendar, the cosmopolitan nature of the fishing communities, ever willing to absorb influences of visitors from the sea across ages, and the battles with the modern age where the traditional fishing trade is being rapidly displaced by businessmen in motorized boats and trawlers. The similarities are so strong because at the end, as he says, “Fishing is still elemental in the most elemental sense of the word - an activity composed of water and air and light space, all arranged in precarious balance around a central idea of a man in a boat, waiting for a bite.”
It is a thought-provoking book, but equally, it is entertaining. If you enjoy travelling through the eyes of a first rate writer, this one is for you.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Civil War Tragedy

This Divided Island
Stories from the Sri Lankan War

By Samanth Subramanian

“In its most hackneyed perception, the island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. But it also looks like the cross section of a hand grenade, with the tapering Jaffna peninsula, up north, forming the top of its safety clip.”

We know the history. A beautiful island in our neighbourhood, torn apart by civil war. Years of festering resentment against discriminatory policies lead the Tamils into a violent struggle for self-determination, for an Eelam, a promised land. Prabhakaran and his band of Tigers develop into one of the most feared revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on where your sympathies lie) organisations in the world, assassinating prime ministers,taking control of the north and east of the island, fighting a guerilla war with the Sri Lankan army for decades. Until the tide turns, with a newly elected President Rajapkse, who takes the war to Prabhakaran, in a ruthless exhibition of military might. The Tigers are decimated, Prabhakaran is killed and thousands of civilians are dead in a crossfire of tragic proportion.

That is what we know. What Samanth Subramanian does is take us to the ground level actors in the conflict. The Tamil ex-military doctor in Colombo who still finds it difficult to acknowledge the role of the military in the decimation of his fellow Tamils in the end game of the war. There are the Jaffna-ites - Sundaram, the mechanic who ran a garage at the height of the blockade, converting petrol-run cars into kerosene-run ones because there was no petrol; M, the newspaper columnist, ex-Tiger and possibly part of their propaganda unit, still a Tamil nationalist, and only willing to talk incognito, who tells Samanth of the last days of Prabhakaran, when he watched the Hollywood movie 300 in a loop, willing himself and his troops to stage an endgame like the Spartans. The ones in exile - the ex-military Tamil in Canada, talking about what it was to be a Tamil in the Sri Lankan army, and what drove him out; Raghavan, the ex-Tiger, close friend of Prabhakaran, who bailed out when he realized he couldn’t reconcile himself to the violence of the Tigers; Nirmala his wife, married to a Tiger and whose sister was killed by the Tigers; Adityan, doing boring data-entry work in London, and nostalgic for the days when the Tigers administered Jaffna. Samanth meets some of the victors - right wing Buddhist monks preaching violence, completely comfortable with the contradiction it presents with their faith; also Buddhist monks who don’t agree with the current regime, yet unable to do much about it. He meets Tamil Muslims, not willing to take sides in the war and punished for their non-alignment from both sides. He meets Ismail, who describes surviving the massacre of a hundred Muslims in 2 mosques in Batticaloa by the Tigers. It is a description that is wrenching; and all Samanth can give him in return for his story is the promise that his story will be told. It is one of the most hard-hitting moments in the book.

Samanth meets Tamils in Sri Lanka who hate the Tigers, for forcing children to take up arms, for their cruelty to their fellow Tamils, for their inhumanity in the name of their cause. Ultimately, it is this hatred that leads to Prabhakaran’s downfall. “This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf. Once this war was lost, once this earth was scorched, it could have been only a question of time before the Tigers lost the other war too”

The end game description provides some real kick-in-the-solar plexus kind of moments. When he describes first hand accounts of the Mullivaikal siege, where thousands of civilians are trapped between the army and the Tigers, when the Tigers drag every young person out to join them in a desperate attempt to prolong their fight and when the Sri Lankan army refuses to let any kind of aid through for fear of the Tigers confiscating them for their use. Samanth listens to dozens of these stories, each more horrifying than the other. And you are left wondering if there is anything man is incapable of doing to fellow men.

There is no redemption even at the end, in Samanth’s eyes. The Tigers are subdued. But their cause is relevant more than ever, as Rajapakse’s government goes into totalitarian mode, wiping out any trace of dissent, even among their own. The Sri Lanka after the war is a bleak world, with little grace on the victors’ side and little fight left in the vanquished. There is no reconciliation, South Africa-style. And that ultimately is the true tragedy.

As an Indian though, you notice the one thing that is completely absent - the influence of Sri Lanka’s neighbour in the conflict. No one talks of the tacit support of Indian Tamils, there is no description of or anecdotes about the IPKF foray, nothing about the big assassinations. It is a gap that is quite inexplicable.

This book is a journalistic narrative of a conflict but it is also a travelogue. The names in newspaper headlines come alive - Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Batticaloa, Mullivaikal. The beauty of the land is offset by the horror of the war that engulfs it. A Divided Island is a deeply disturbing book. But one that needed to be written.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath

I read this first when I was a completely happy-go-lucky teenager. When my heroes were Rhett Butler and Howard Roark. When I took feminism for granted, when there were no niggling doubts in my head about career or marriage or the future. So of course, I couldn’t quite get my head around The Bell Jar. Esther was a strange heroine, much too melancholic, not liking anyone much, not particularly likeable either. She was the demographic I wanted to be - the independent working girl in the big, bad city. But she showed me a side to this that I just wasn’t prepared to see. So I gave up on the book.

Decades later, I re-visit this. And understand why it resonated so much with so many. Esther is so tangible you can almost reach out and touch her. Her sense of being alone in the midst of the whirlwind that is New York, of the futility of living a life that must ultimately lead to death, of wanting to end the whole rigmarole once and for all… all this delineated so painstakingly, it leaves a mark.

Reading it, you know it is real. Because you know Plath and her history. And the realness of it makes it horrific. Especially since you know that at various points in time, you have had similar thoughts, with varying degrees of intensity. “I saw the days of the year stretching ahead like a series of bright, white boxes, and separating one box from another was like sleep, like a black shade. Only for me, the long perspectives of shades that set off one box from the next had suddenly snapped up, and I could see day after day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It seemed silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next. It made me tired just to think of it. I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

Growing up is stressful. There are careers to be chosen and husbands to be obtained, decisions to be made and disappointments to be experienced. Esther blanks them out, goes into the shell of the bell jar and when that happens in the fifties, you are taken to doctors who are unsympathetic, put through treatments like painful electric shocks and locked up in institutions where there is little recourse. It is a bit of a scary world and as a reader you experience the horror with Esther, not being able to take your eyes off the descent into madness.

But there is redemption in the form of Dr. Nolan who seems to get Esther in a way she hasn’t been before. And by the end of the book Esther is seeing glimpses of hope in a world gone blank and dark. She is once again looking to live. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” She is returned, bruised and a bit broken, but whole again. “There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice - patched, retreaded and approved for the road.”

Of course, we know of Plath and of the briefness of the redemption. The Bell Jar was published after she killed herself at the age of 31. We know of the sometimes-beautiful poetry she wrote and the hagiography her death engendered, the feminist interpretations of her works and the almost larger-than-life figure she became after her death. And given all that hype that surrounds her, The Bell Jar is surprisingly a quiet little book, an intimate portrait of a young girl’s descent into a personal hell and her subsequent climb out of it. It reminds you of how little it takes to turn that ennui you feel, like Emily Dickinson, when you see that certain slant of light, into an illness you can possibly never recover from. You read The Bell Jar and realize how lucky you are.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Paris Diaries

A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway

It is a magical time and place - Paris in the twenties. Hemingway is a struggling young writer. There is little money and he has a wife and baby to support. But he is part of a set of writers and artists who are or will be household names. It’s literary voyeurism at its best.
A Moveable Feast was published after Hemingway’s death. A set of sketches of his time in Paris during his first marriage with Hadley, it shows us a Hemingway trying to become the Hemingway the world knows today, crafting his literary style, making and discarding friends, building up to the nastiness and the greatness he became known for later. The title is taken from something he said about Paris - “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
In a lot of ways, Paris is the hero of the book. It’s a Paris that has probably all but disappeared a long time ago - a place where a struggling young artist could live cheaply and well, where there was Sylvia Beach and her book shop providing literary sustenance, where Ezra Pound created a fund to save TS Eliot from his bank job to allow him to write full time, where there are cafes to write in and parks to walk through, where there would always be a fellow-writer to go on trips with. It’s lovely and romantic, especially when you know your writing is going well, and you feel the world is there for the taking. Watching a beautiful young woman waiting for someone in a cafe he is writing in, Hemingway says “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.” It’s heady!
He writes about the famous figures he encounters. He doesn’t flatter, he is downright nasty sometimes. Fitzgerald is weak and a drunk, Zelda undermines his confidence, jealous of his writing and scornful of his manhood. His novel The Great Gatsby is pure genius and just for that Hemingway is willing to forgive him anything. Ford Maddox Ford has terrible breath and lies all the time and is disliked intensely by Hemingway. Ezra Pound is generous to a fault, even to writers not deserving of it. Gertrude Stein has regressive views on homosexuality, she plays favourites with the writers and artists invited to her home, and she has a falling out with Hemingway. James Joyce is a hero who frequents a restaurant Hemingway cannot afford, yet he attempts to go there hoping to catch a glimpse. All of this is terribly interesting and voyeuristic and is the literary equivalent of People magazine.
But what binds me to this book is Hemingway’s notes on his writing progress and his own consciousness of the purpose of his life - the writing, always the writing. “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.” It does not matter that he is poor and has sometimes to go hungry. It does not matter that the artists and famous people he meets always manage to disappoint him. He is writing and writing well. “Do not worry,” he tells himself, “ You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Hemingway is probably describing the happiest time of his life - married to Hadley whom he loves, probably the only woman he ever truly loved, living in beautiful Paris, moving among probable geniuses, and crafting his own literary legacy. It is a deeply evocative book. An older Hemingway manages to capture a more innocent time, a time when anything seemed possible, when everything seemed a bit more clear.

To be young and in Paris. It’s pure heaven. Especially when as an adult you know how it’s all going to end.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Last Days of Summer

Kaup Beach
You are not a beach person. You hate the sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. And never having learnt to swim well, you are afraid of the sea. So the weekend getaway to a beach one hopes will be an exception to the general feeling a beach evokes.
The Blue Matsya
The Blue Matsya is a lovely little house right on Kaup beach, about an hour away from Mangalore airport. It has blue slatted french windows that lead to a porch on the ground floor and a balcony on the first. Both of which look out into the sea, less than a 100 m away. Awesome location and you are quite smitten at first sight.
And then, even you, who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the water, realize the magic of close proximity to the sea. The sound of the waves, the rhythmic beat of it, the infinite stretch into the horizon. And if you happen to be sitting on The Blue Matsya’s balcony at night, with the lights of the house switched off, the intoxicant of your choice in your hand, the waves sounding a symphony in the background, the dark empty beach in front of you, the stars playing hide and seek with the clouds above you - well, you hit a moment of near perfection, when you begin to shed all those minor irritants at the back of your mind, when you tell yourself, I am happy now, in an Eckhardt Tolle kind of way.And then after a long while, you go back in and fall asleep to the lulling sound of the waves.
View from bedroom
You wake up to a glorious Saturday morning. You sit out on the porch, with Nancy Mitford on your Kindle and the beach still whispering its magic. You can sit there forever. But breakfast and tea come calling, and once done with that, you tell yourself, it would be a shame to refuse the invite of the water. So you go in to dip your toes and end up with sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. But you don’t fail to notice the water is cool, the sand is warm and the beach is virtually empty. You come back to the house and settle back on the porch with Nancy. The waves keep pounding the shore, the temperature climbs up and you catch yourself dozing. Until your stomach reminds you it’s time for lunch, which is just a phone call away.
But you decide to walk the kilometer to Ravi Anna’s for his fish. So you walk and you walk and lose your way and the sun is blazing hot, and just when you are beginning to question the sanity of the decision, you find yourself in this tiny place smelling of frying fish, right next to the highway. You sit on plastic chairs and eat fish curry and fried fish and red rice on a plantain leaf, and it’s as good a fish curry as any you have tasted in your keralite-i-know-all-about-fish life. You eat till you are stuffed and then you walk back along the highway. A bad decision - it’s hot and the concrete road has little charm. But you sweat yourself back up to the cool house by the beach and plonk yourself right back on the porch. An afternoon nap is inevitable, the sea breeze and the sound of the waves cooling you off. And this time you wake up to chai and mangoes.
Mangoes! Not the Mumbai Alphonso variety, but your childhood summer ones, the ones you threw stones at, to bring them down from trees, never knowing if they would have insects in them, the sweetness tasting sweeter because of the effort and the uncertainty. And then more plonking. On a hammock, now, swayed by the evening breeze, warmed by the setting sun. It’s a slice-of-paradise moment, one you can bring up in your mind’s eye when you are dozing off in a conference room in the not so distant future.
You rouse yourself and make the effort to get to the lighthouse, a 100 metres away from the house,
The Kaup lighthouse
down the beach. There are holiday makers there - semi-clad men and fully-clad women. You do a bit of jostling and climb up. The setting sun, the sea, the breeze. Ah! Again, a moment to capture in your inner camera, to savour later on a not-so-kind day. You walk back in semi-darkness to the house, where wine, the stars and more delicious food await you.
And so the last days of summer come to an end. You have a flight to catch that will take you back to life’s hustle. But a warm beach and a lovely house on it have created some memories that can make that hustle just a bit more bearable. And for that, you are immensely grateful.

For more information on The Blue Matsya, visit

Friday, May 23, 2014

Adulthood Imperatives

Brightness Falls

By Jay McInerney

Russel and Corrine Calloway are ‘America’s sweethearts’, a couple seen as model among their friends, acquaintances and even by themselves - beautiful, young, on their way to success. “Like Scandinavians, they inhabited a hygienic welfare state the laws of which didn’t necessarily apply outside the realm, and sometimes, when one of them expressed an opinion, an outsider wanted to say, Sure, that might be true for you two, but the rest of us, we’re still trying to find a warm body.” Jeff is their best friend, a writer with a successful first book. The scene is ‘80s New York, a time and place that has its own peculiar zeitgeist - of excessive ambition and greed, designer drugs, of a belief in entitlement, all coupled with soup kitchens and homelessness and street corner crime. Russel and Corrine and Jeff are products of the time; college mates and best friends, winging it through big city life.
Russel is an up and coming editor in a well-known publishing house, making far less money than the times warrant, yet acknowledged as someone who will ‘make it’. He exemplifies America during those times - “Propp was intrigued by Calloway’s mind precisely because it was so American… standing on firm ground where Victor descried quicksand. Calloway reminded Victor of those cartoon characters who were able to walk on the air so long as they didn’t know there was an abyss underneath them. Naive, in a word - but an interesting, almost exemplary naivete, having to do with youth and an admirable brashness.”
Jeff is Russel’s alter-ego, the successful author, loving his friends, yet unable to let go of his yearning for Corrine, and along the way, trying to ‘fill the big empty’ with drugs and alcohol, finding his own path to self-destruction. In the words of Corrine, he had ‘the dark eyes of an old soul’ as opposed to Russel’s who ‘had boyish wide blue eyes and was born the day before yesterday’.
Corrine is a stockbroker without the soul of one - “How can you like the Clash, punk-socialist band, and sell corporate equity at the same time? That was the inexplicable mystery of being Corrine Calloway at the age of thirty-one.” She is making a bit more money than Russel, yet but she does not really buy into the excessive optimism of the age, advising caution to her clients. But her cautionary advice has no impact on her reckless husband who throws himself into the whirlwind of the stock market bubble, leveraging himself completely, trying to make a bid for his publishing firm with the support of an unscrupulous Wall Street raider. Russel is sucked into the dream of big success and when, as dreams often do, it crashes along with the stock market, he wakes up to the reality of debt, a failing marriage and a broken friendship.
It is a simple enough story, of the fading of youth’s certainties, of a generation learning about what it means to fail, about the real meaning of relationships, about the impermanence of so many things, including life. Russel and Corrine grow up into the sort of adulthood that includes words like compromise and settling and loss.
It’s a story we have all heard before. You could say all great literature is really about the journey of growing up. McInerney has his own way of telling it though. Clever lines, pretty passages, descriptions that bring alive the time and place. “..there came a moment in February when the gray sky seemed to drop so low it brushed the top of one’s hair, while the slush reached over the tops of shoes and the dry skin on one’s face felt as if it were being stretched on a rack and cured for glove leather. Love itself seemed old and worn-out, like the shoes bleached white and brittle from the salt. This was the day that newcomers to the city called a travel agent, the old hands already holding tickets to warm islands.” And the dulling realization of impending adulthood - “He wanted to say he couldn’t live without her, but he was afraid that somewhere along the line he might have lost the romantic fanaticism of innocence which allowed him to host such absolute beliefs… By the time she hung up he felt dull and heavy, uncertain of anything except, perhaps, that his heart would never be simple again.”
McInerney can pack a punch with his word play. At the end, we share with Russel and Corrine that tinge of sadness at a world where the glitter is just a bit more faded, where ‘brightness and beauty and youth falling like snow out of the sky all around them, gold dust falling to the streets and washing away in the rain outside the church, down the gutters into the sea.’, where ‘intimacy with loss’ just gets a bit more pronounced as days go by. Adulthood as we all know, is not particularly appetizing. McInerney’s language makes the passage to it bearable.