December 29, 2012 by markstani
In the red corner in this year’s battle for the MAN Asian Prize, Qian Xiaohong, fiery heroine of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls, a girl who thinks nothing of engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the creaking might of the Chinese state as part of her irrepressible quest to wring the most from life.
In the blue corner, Leela, a rootless twentysomething who is the star – although that is probably too strong a word – of Anjali Joseph’s tale of nothing-much-really, Another Country.
The thought crossed my mind midway through Joseph’s second novel – her first was the multiple award-winning ‘Saraswati Park’ – of how much better Leela’s life would be if novels could somehow cross-pollinate – in musical terms, I think the kids call it a mash-up – and Qian, Keyi’s unforgettable siren, could pop up to give Leela a few words of advice. Or, even better, a kick up the backside.
Leela starts ‘Another Country’ as a student-turned-temp in Paris, where she gets a mundane job and shrugs off the perfectly ordinary attentions of a reasonable man. She moves to London, where she does much the same, adding a few pangs of regret to try to spice things up, and eventually returns to India, the home of her parents, where another dim desk job and reasonable man await to be dimly and reasonably rejected.
The novel begins:
Leela, self-conscious, released into the world, walked down the boulevard de Sebastopol. A September afternoon. Chestnut trees allowed their leaves to fall; the warm air carried them to the pavement. She had never seen leaves fall so slowly.
Frankly, if this novel constitutes Leela’s ‘release’ into the world, then it provides a convincing argument for prolonged captivity. Precious little of her life strikes me as particularly novel-worthy. It is as monotonous as, well, watching leaves fall slowly. The lack of any discernable plot is not necessarily a bad thing, far from it, but what there is must ultimately amount to something. This series of what I suppose you could call chronological vignettes, snapshots of a life-too-ordinary, exhibits no particular character development, and the trio of cities across which the novel is set – and which will create its exotic selling point – are curiously incidental, playing little or no part in influencing Leela’s actions.
Perhaps Joseph intended this book AS an insight into a new generation of melancholy post-grads with emigrant backgrounds and opportunities and/or excuses to drift round the world in a futile search for an undefined sort of satisfaction. If so, then this is indeed a damning indictment: less Generation X, more Generation Zzzz.
Despite what I realise is a wholly negative report so far, there are one or two things that stop me writing this book off entirely. Joseph is obviously a fine writer (in fact, her talent seems ill-served to a story as shallow as this). I also acknowledge that this is probably a book that just wasn’t meant for someone like me – but then, nor was last year’s shortlistee Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua, about as feminine a book as you could possibly get, and all the more wonderful for it. The other thing making me hesitate in my hatchet job is that I passed it on to my mother-in-law, who proceeded to read the first third or so without stopping, before poking her head up to pronounce it perfectly acceptable: to her it was reminiscent of one of those arty old French silent movies, and all the more engaging for it.
So there you go. I should probably leave you to make up your own minds. Personally, my money will always be on Qian Xiaohong, via first round knockout.