When you read, what do you read for? Plot? Action? Erudition? What’s the meaning of reading? I suppose this question depends on your mood when reading. Sometimes you want to sink into a comfy sofa of a book – and sometimes you discover that what you thought would be a comfy sofa is something else. A hardback chair. Or, like this book, a collection of pearled papers, a gathering of bright brittle leaves.
Another Country centres around the centreless, rootless Leela Gosh, a Bombay (now Mumbai) born twenty-something middle class Cambridge graduate who, when the novel opens, is living in Paris as an English teacher and feeling hopelessly, but rather wonderfully, out of place. From the well written sentences and precise evocations you might presume that you are entering a guided space, and that the plot will roll out carefully in front of you. However, this is not that sort of book. And after the bluster of 1Q84, I was certainly glad it wasn’t.
Here is something tender, fragmentary. In the Paris sections, I was reminded of Jean Rhys – as in her works, human interactions here are like inflictions, bruising. Leela is aware of herself and her flaws, suspicious of the behaviour of others and of her own performance towards them:
Leela smiled. She pulled her thin jacket around her. They carried on walking, away from the others and into pools of light under streetlamps. And now, nagged a voice inside her, what will you do? She ignored it.
The pavement glittered with moisture.
Simon put a hand on her shoulder; she tried not to jump. He smiled. “What were we talking about, anyway, before we were so rudely thrown out of that bar?” He released her shoulder, but not before his hand had been there long enough to signal deliberateness. It was a charming gesture, and made her nervous.
There is the use of make up to construct an identity, a mask. There is the character’s apparent passivity, but it seems to me different to that of Rhys’ protagonists. There is more hope here, far less fatalism. Even when in a dismal London, in a stagnant relationship, there is a sense that Leela hopes to startle herself out. Companions, though just as fleeting, are less cruel. In the level of detail used to describe them, it seems as if Joseph is grasping at them, trying to put down in record what she can of them, before they fade from Leela’s view. London was the hardest section for me to read, because of the long dreariness of malcontent coming after the dizzying snippets of Paris.
When Leela returns to Bombay, to construct a life there, the text morphs again, and we are presented with a different sort of culture clash – that of the returned immigrant. Gone are the tube stations and the grey skies, here come the familiar-unfamiliar: the turquoise sea and dirt and the banter of crows and mannered, elegant women and servants in the home.
Any thought of resolution in novels of migration is predicated on the notion that every person who continually crosses borders can solidify themselves, make themselves fit neatly within whatever rules – spoken and unspoken, learned, half-learned or never acquired – that particular country, and the strictures of class and race and gender impose. Leela is witness to this difficulty. Though she may seem listless, she is being daily buffeted by the winds of her own alienation. Another Country and Another Country, and you must keep tabs as well as live your life, make something out of the shifting sands. The protagonist as a leaf, the protagonist as a line that goes on forever, in a light hand.
When reading a book, it’s your attitude that shapes your experience of reading – your willingness to engage with what it presents. If the territory is not familiar, not structured around character development and plot arcs of whatever sort, you have to ask yourself, what am I willing to expose of myself here, do I need certain touchstones, or can I go alone. You must ask yourself, do I trust the author. Sometimes you will go by name recognition – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. At other times, the book, however slender and unconsoling, might suit you perfectly. Another Country is just that book for me right now. I’m typing, ill in bed with a missing voice. I’ve come through a big read, and I needed a little careful bruising breeze, and this was just it.