21 July, 2012

A Suitable Boy

Author: Vikram Seth
Genre: Fiction
Audience: Adult
Personal copy

From Goodreads: Vikram Seth's novel is at its core a love story, the tale of Lata - and her mother's attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. Set in post-Independence India and involving the lives of four large families and those who orbit them, it is also a vast panoramic exploration of a whole continent at a crucial hour as a sixth of the world's population faces its first great General Election and the chance to map its own destiny. 'A SUITABLE BOY may prove to be the most fecund as well as the most prodigious work of the latter half of this century - perhaps even the book to restore the serious reading public's faith in the contemporary novel ... You should make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life' Daniel Johnson, The Times

What I thought:
So this is our book group book for July. Given it is close to 1500 pages long, and the type is small, we set it at the beginning of the year so everyone had plenty of time. By the time I started to read it, I worked out I needed to read around 50 – 60 pages a day! Thankfully by the time I started it I was on holidays!
The book is stunning. The lives of the characters interweave in ways that are not always clear, but suddenly come into focus when it's needed. It a cast of many, but I found it surprisingly easy to keep track of – something I usually struggle with when they are so many characters. Seth’s characters are so clearly their own people, with their own personality traits and struggles in life. I must admit the family trees at the beginning also helped keep track.
There were many clever things in this book. Seth has also published poetry and he uses rhyming couplets in this story to great effect. There is the Chatterji's, a family whose younger members often rattle of couplets to describe or make fun of a situation.

What is Krishnan in the end?
Just a mushroom, just a friend.

Always eating dosa-iddly,
Drinking beer and going piddly!

The book has 19 chapters, with each chapter having a rhyming couplet which describe events in that chapter. While it couldn't replace the book, it was very useful for reminding me of what had happened previously, especially after a break from the book.
While it’s not difficult to read, it is dense. Interactions between people are described in detail, with many nuances to keep in mind, along with previous events and meetings. I found this meant that after awhile, I had to put it down, even if it was only for a short amount of time. While reading A Suitable Boy, I read three other books, but found it easy to pick up the thread again when I went back to it.
Set at a time when India was a new democracy, A Suitable Boy provides a rich insight into a country starting new, finding it’s feet and struggling with issues. In truth, it has not only made me want to read more on the history of India and the role of the British Empire within it’s history, but to also visit the country.
If I had one criticism of the book, its that it is not available on Kindle! And lets face it, it’s size makes it a perfect candidate! A times I had to put it down not through strain of the brain, but strain of the wrist! This is a fact the author acknowledges in a poem titled A Word of Thanks at the beginning, in which he thanks those who have helped him in writing the book and finishes with this:

And, gentle reader, you as well,
The Fountainhead of all remittance.
Buy me before good sense insists
You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.

A Suitable Boy is not a book you can approach lightly. You need to have time and commitment to see it through, but I promise you, the effort is well worth it.