I do love a big fat saga, and this book, with its stunningly beautiful embossed cover in greens and yellows with running children, and a blurb that contains the phrase ‘forbidden love that will last for generations’, promises nothing less, and completely delivers.
Possibly the most depressing, yet lyrical book I’ve read this year, this is the story of Devi, the beautiful and cherished daughter of a middle class family in late 19th century South India.
Mandanna apparently ‘belongs to the Coorg’, which I would take the piss out of for ridiculous sentimentality, but that’s how I feel about Yorkshire, so I won’t. Certainly her evocative, almost too sumptuous descriptions of this lush mountain region I’ve never even heard of make her have good reason to be proud. Like Love in a Time of Cholera, this book makes you smell the jungle. Heady, gorgeous, full of flowers and elephants, leads to what for my boring Western eyes brought up on finding heather impressive is an exotic tantalising land.
If the country is beautiful, the people are more so, apparently. The Coorg are ‘known’ for their women’s beauty and class, beauty in this world meaning pale skinned, high cheek boned, and curvy. They are also known for their ‘honour’, and it is with this addition of a national characteristic that this book becomes more than just a beach read.
It is this idea of ‘honour’ that pervades the people’s lives that eventually leads to every single thing falling apart. Devi and her childhood friend Devanna are inseparable, with Devanna’s crush on Devi growing into an all consuming obsession by the time he gets into medical school. Devi, on the other hand, decides she’s in love with a local hero, ‘The Tiger Killer’, after seeing him once. Because that’s exactly how love works.
And now I’m going to insert some MASSIVE SPOILERS… because there are parts about this book that I have ‘feelings’ about that I want to get off my chest. It is, however, really really good, would make a cracking holiday read (its really fucking long, so an investment for t’beach me thinks) so READ IT, and then come back to me…
…right, have you now read it? Good. OK.
Does she not, you know, massively excuse rape a bit? I know I’ve been a bit Bad Feminist about Stuff Like That on here before (see my The Foutainhead Roark-Gush from a few months back) but when the Massively Tragic stuff starts happening obviously its all terrible, and I’m not saying the Devanna’s experiences in medical school aren’t horrifying and abusive and he, naturally, is traumatised from them but I’m sorry that doesn’t excuse raping someone. Even if it is the woman he’s been in love with for his entire life.
When they married off Devi and Devanna afterwards I was really really gutted and angry for her, her rapist is rewarded by being given status within the family- I’m sorry but feeling really sorry doesn’t excuse your behaviour, he should have been jailed, not married.
Much as I found the relationship between Devi and Machou absolutely bollocks (‘to love you is to fly’, oh really, flying on the wings of the massive amounts of time and energy you’ve spent actually getting to know each other rather than spending your entire time staring into each others eyes? Because that’s the recipe for a long and healthy relationship right there isn’t it, staring) (sorry, if you can’t already tell, feeling a little but cynical about the whole ‘love’ bollocks right now), I also was really gutted for the pair of them. But neither of them makes it any easier on themselves by never actually having a conversation. Devi doesn’t tell him until its too late, to preserve the honour of the man who raped her? Pur-lease that is some twisted shit right there.
It’s this ‘honour’ thing which ruins every single person in the books lives. How can that which makes everyone unhappy, leads to two people killing themselves, one person trying to, one person never again seeing the child he loves, and one person faking their own death be a good part of a culture, one you should definitely, definitely keep?
Also, by the last third of the book, I did kind of want every single character apart from Nanju to just fuck off, and he’s the only one who did.
And then the ended was so contrite, oh Devi, the whiney obsessive who got everything she wanted basically by being a cow and ruining the son she was supposedly giving a better life to (whose mother kills herself because of Devi’s obsession, and she feels bad about that for, what, a day? Cow) just happens to bump into a doctor who went to college with Devanna who just happened to see the ragging (colonial import that once again made me so proud of my Mother Country. I fucking hate being British sometimes I really do) and so she forgives her rapist. And how does she show she has forgiven him? By giving him a cuddle? What evs.
So yes I did love this book, couldn’t put it down and shall be recommending it heartily, and I have given it 4/5 because, you know what, it’s a debut, and for a debut it is outstandingly better than some of the so called ‘literary’ shite I’ve read this year. But I feel a lot better having got all that off my chest.