Call me Ishmael—or better, Ahab, for I have sought battle with a great, white whale. Some time ago I learned that of the 100 books that an Anglophone reader was most likely to have read, there were four I hadn’t. To be completely average, I would have to read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I blithely ordered this commonwealth novel (along with the other three titles), and when the box arrived, I feared some mistake. Surely I had not ordered anything of wrought iron with my books—and yet, what else could weigh so much, yet take up so little volume? A Suitable Boy is, in the era of literary compactness, a behemoth at 1,480 pages of low-margin, small print. Yet, I have now read and enjoyed it and would advise others to do the same.
Despite being published in the 1990s, this novel has a nineteenth century feel to it: it’s long, diffuse, weaves in and out of political concerns, and take as its excuse for doing so a basic courtship plot. The setting is India 1951-1952. Gandhi is dead, the country is floundering under the influx of Hindu refugees from the new Pakistan and roiling with religious tensions within its own borders, the first Independent election looms, and yet life for many still centers on the basic milestones of life: getting a husband or job, a baby or a promotion, mourning the dead, praying, eating, drinking, and making merry. Lata Mehra and her friends stand in for the generation of Indians who will become adults in the newly Independent state of India, which, among other things, seeks to give women more and better protections under the law. Lata doubts the intelligence of traditional arranged marriages but is shocked by her best friend’s shameless pursuit of passionate love (including an affair with a married man). She agrees with her mother—who is desperately seeking a suitable boy for her—that soon it will be time to marry. The question is when and to whom.
By a third of the way through the novel, the personnel on the field have become clear. There is handsome and athletic Khalid, with whom Lata sneaks around and shares her first kiss. By her family’s standards, his faith makes him unsuitable, and even Lata doubts the possibility of a happy mixed marriage. Next comes Haresh, an ambitious though uncultured man of her own caste who came to her attention through the traditional channels. Although she won’t agree to a simple meet, greet, and wed, Lata is willing to make his acquaintance and correspond with him to see if she believes they can be compatible. Her mother champions Haresh, while her older brother finds him wanting. Finally, there is Amit, her brother’s brother-in-law. Amit is a Brahmin poet and novelist with whom Lata shares interests. As members of the same large family circle, they freely socialize and discover a great deal in common. One might summarize Lata’s choice thus: she can choose passionate love, a marriage of duty, or a companionate marriage. What gives motivation to the portion of the novel that focuses on this storyline is not who or what she ultimately chooses, but why. Seth draws a fascinating character who is both a product of her traditional culture and a young person seeking the imported ideals of western modernity, with sometimes no clear idea about which of her values or ideas come from where.
Lata’s story only takes up something like a fifth of the total. In other plots (which I wouldn’t call sub-plots so much as co-plots), a Hindu minister’s son falls desperately in love with a Muslim prostitute-cum-musician with a secret that will bring about death, attempted murder, and political upheaval; a son of wealthy landowners turns socialist and tries to subvert his family’s exploitation; workers strike; festivals become stampedes and riots; politicians balance their ideals, their desires, and the realities of party loyalty.
Each strand of the narration strums a different chord on the instrument of the New India, a complex, brutal, and magical place.
Donaghue's book mines the archives for source material, as befitting the work of a novelist who is also a historian. I resist the label of historical fiction for this novel, however, as that generic title has come to denote a very specific kind of dramatic, sweeping, and painstakingly detailed story. In some respects, Slammerkin boasts more liveliness and deftness than many a "historical fiction," yet gives a lot of historical texture to the narrative that makes it unlike a contemporary tale.
For all that makes it a good read, I will quarrel with Slammerkin all the same. The book relentlessly follows Mary from her first ruin to the standard conclusion of a woman so sullied. A story like this requries the reader's absolute commitment to the protagonist, even if we don't like her--and Mary is very hard to like. The book fails, I think, in its ambition for complexity for the character. Instead of feeling rich and rounded and consistent, the character instead feels contradictory and motorless. We don't know why she makes the decision she does--they are inexplicable, especially the climactic one. Mary's life begins to feel like a game that leaves the reader's emotional involvement on the sidelines.
It is not, it must be pointed out, an amazing piece of literature by any common standard. It does, however, offer the quiet pleasure of the picturesque. The story tacks back and forth between the siege of Leningrad and a wedding in Washington state. The reader follows the thoughts and memories of Marina who in her past was a tour guide and art protector at what we now call the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and who in her present is experiencing the steep downhill of Alzheimer's affliction at her granddaughter's nuptials. What connects the two parts of this woman's life is her relationship to memory.
While suffering from a famine that is killing off the citizens of Leningrad after German bombs wipe out the city's food supply, Marina satisfies her need for pleasure by memorizing what used to be displayed in each room of her museum before the art was shipped off for safe keeping. She remembers the lush still lifes and the pious Madonnas, the stiff portraits and the international curios. Dean's writing, at its best, conveys the semi-hysterical ecstasy that the starving girl feels in the presence of the imagined art works. Each reconstructed brush stroke really does help Marina dull the pain of frozen digits, dying relatives, and a fiance missing on the front.
In her present-day life, Marina is warm and loved by the long-found fiance (now husband) and their two children. She doesn't ache for memories of artistic beauty to fill other needs. This stage of her life is about the (painful, real, harsh, yet ineffably exhilarating, too) truth that forgetting allows one to see beauty too. Marina can no longer identify with accuracy herself in a mirror or her family members around her. This forgetting enables her to disencumber herself of all associations and to just be in the world, to experience the green of a dappled light as though she never has before.
Madonnas is a book to give yourself over to for an afternoon (and that's all it will take). It will bring you on a sweet and short journey into a different life than the one you lead.