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Suitable Boy

by Vickram Seth

How can one begin to describe a novel as vast almost as India itself? At nearly 1500 pages it enormous sweep attempts to take in the whole Indian subcontinent experience and in my view succeeds. A fantastic vivid picture is painted in the pages of people, food, religion, culture, music, caste, war, politics; taking in arranged marriages, Law courts, local elections, university life and India's industrial shoe making industry from the highest to the lowest level!. Superbly gripping entertainment but wondrously interesting as well the shattering intricate detail from a lowly peasant ploughing to the Chief Minister of the state mean that no part of the picture is left un explained by Seth. Flowers, plants and animals in a garden are explained beautifully as are meals, clothes and huge magnificent street scenes. I don't think Seth left a literal Indian stone unturned when writing this massive book and that is the real beauty of this book - I read it on holiday and it took the full two weeks yet I was sad that it had to end. I did wonder at the lack of a literary prize for this book though it did pick up the obscure Commonwealth writers prize, this was really ideal Booker prize materiel ( Roddy Doyle won that year with Paddy Clarke Ha ha ha ). The huge size of the work may have seemed off putting to the judges but it really did deserve recognition.

The main theme running though the work like the Ganges running through India is the search for a "Suitable Boy" or a really a suitable Hindu boy for a young upper class Indian Hindu woman from a good background. The girls mother uses the huge extended family to try an make a suitable match but the girl herself meets and begins to fall for a Muslim boy of good character. But mixed marriages in post partition 1950 India are out of the question. The extended families of the Mehras, Khans, Kapoors and Chatterjis with their children and uncles and friends and servants build into a huge and complex though surprisingly easy to follow story of love, betrayal and everyday life in 50's India after the British have left. There is a family tree at the beginning of the book that helps in the first chapters but once one is used to the different characters it just flows easily and I didn't need to refer to it again. The minute detail that goes into even the most basic part of each chapter is a joy to read - how much to pay a Ganges Boatman for instance after haggling or what native birds come to the extensive gardens of the characters houses after monsoon rains. The Indian back street shoe industry is part of the story and the awful toil of the poor low caste peasants who make the shoes then have to try and sell them to dealers so they and their families can eat is covered in vast and emotive detail. The toil of landless peasants under Zamindari Landlords (Muslim landowners who, for generations have owned the land and the peasants that work it) in the broiling Indian sun, the backbreaking labours vivid in detail make uncomfortable reading (especially if one is reading it whilst sitting in a 100 degree sun oneself!). The twists and turns of local and national politics as the political characters in the story attempt to force through a bill to reclaim land from the landowners to supposedly re distribute it to the peasants is played out in parliaments and in the Indian High court - the high court scenes are particularly interesting and gripping. University life with its internal politics of whether to teach Joyce or not are covered as is how to make a pair of leather brogue shoes!. The religious festivals involving biblical numbers of people bathing in the holy river Ganges and Shia Muslim festivals are featured but are explained too, you get a real understanding of Hindu and Muslim rites.

This detail serves to keep the reader fully enthralled with the characters and their lives; I can only think the thing that would make this better is to read it in India itself. To be fair a little knowledge of India's history makes this book a feast, before writing this I tested the theory with a small internet search and found simple sites with a chronological breakdown of modern post - war Indian history. I already had a fair knowledge so had no problems, the foods, clothes, street life etc has been well written about by authors such as Paul Scott, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and of course Salman Rushdie. That said the very explanations give the novel accessibility and ease of reading I have not found before, the smooth dialogue flowing easily not getting bogged down with metaphor. The simplicity of the plot coupled with the vastness of the background detail make for such a reading pleasure that I cannot think of a better book for a holiday read - it size alone means you may not need to take several books on holiday!.

This book has given me two weeks of unexpected pleasure, I had heard mixed reviews but I have found the book to be outstanding in every way possible - I didn't want it to end. Its sheer size may put some off but they should not be, it is never slow and thrills the reader with something new in every one of its many short chapters. A Suitable Boy is going into my all time top ten books and I thoroughly recommend it to all readers young or old.


Blogger Random One said...

I totally loved this book. Do not read it during any sort of period in your life where you have exams though-because you will not be able to revise...i could not put the book down! However there were parts where i found myself a little bored-mostly during the bits concerning post-partition politics but everyone will have favourite sub-plotlines in this book and those keep you going through the duller parts (of which there are very few).

I thought all the characters were extremely well developed-i would love to see this book turned into a GOOD film...but then that may destroy the excellence of it.

8:51 AM


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