Thursday, April 10, 2014

Caution: Read this book while sitting in front of a happy lamp

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is quite possibly the most depressing book I have ever read.  Much like the other novel I've read by him, Family Matters, it is pretty sad the whole way through, but then you get to the epilogue and realize that the rest of the book was like an episode of Full House compared to what he has in store for you in the last several pages.  That's where he ensures that you lose all hope in the future of humanity.

This is probably not a great way to introduce the book to you in a way that makes you want to read it.  And frankly, if I had known how depressing the book was before I picked it up, I am not sure I would have read it, either.  It is SUPER depressing.  It's depressing the way this winter has been depressing.  You think that you have seen enough and that someone will have mercy on you because things can't get much worse, and then you wake up and it's 20 degrees at the end of March and it's still snowing and you realize that you have worn the same eight sweaters approximately 50 times over the past six months because there are only so many clothes in your wardrobe that are warm enough to wear in sub-zero temperatures.  So you put one of those sweaters on again, and miserably go out to sweep the snow off your car so that you can drive two hours to work because ... well, what else can you do?

Rohinton Mistry is this winter.  He just does NOT give you a break.

A Fine Balance is a story that revolves around four people, mostly during the Emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared in the 1970s.  Dina is a widow who has trouble making ends meet. She takes in a boarder, Maneck, who is from the rural mountains and has suffered a great deal of bullying at college.  She also hires an uncle and nephew team of tailors to work for her, Ishvar and Omprakash.  These two men are escaping caste violence in their village.  The story moves forward and backward, sharing each character's backstory and then coming back to the present day, often with side stories about other people that have smaller parts in the main action of the novel but have quite telling stories about the state of India during the Emergency.  One of the key components of the Emergency, both in real life and in the novel, was the horrific mass-sterilization campaign, during which many poor people were forced to get operations so that they could no longer have children.

In some ways, this book was similar to Behind the Beautiful Forevers because it made clear just how much of a razor blade the poor live on.  Life can be going along fairly well, and then one setback can completely ruin everything that you have worked towards.  And then, even worse than that, there is the horror of police brutality, government corruption, and forced sterilization.

Obviously, with all of this as the setting, there is not much that could happen in A Fine Balance to make it a happy book.  While Mistry's writing is lovely and his characters are drawn so well and truly come to life, these only help to shatter you even further as a reader when things go badly (and, I kid you not, everything goes badly).

So while I'm glad that I read this one due to all the acclaim it has received and due to the amount of time it has sat unread on my shelf, I don't think I'll be picking Mistry up again any time soon.  I need some time to recover!

16 comments:

  1. So damn depressing yet SO many people cite it as one of their fave books. I NEED to know why! It's on my TBR Challenge list for this year. I think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I honestly do not know why it would be a favorite book. Maybe people like reading about the noble poor making the best of things?

      Delete
  2. You comment about what a razor the poor live on makes me think of The Bicycle Thief, the Italian movie from the 1940's which is the most depressing, saddest movie you will ever live to see, AND possibly the best movie ever made. I'm with Andi on this one, I should read this book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have seen that movie! And I agree - very depressing.

      Delete
  3. I'm......yeah, probably not going to read this. It's probably one of those books that I resist forever until some book club gets me to read it, and then I'm like, no, yeah, this was legitimately really good. I felt that way about Half of a Yellow Sun -- though I do truly think this sounds more depressing than Half of a Yellow Sun. This sounds unrelenting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Half of a Yellow Sun was quite depressing, too. However, that was a war, so kind of expected. This is just ... Life.

      Delete
  4. Super depressing?...ok..noooooo

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is probably one of the oldest unread books on my shelves...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was the same for me. At least I can mark it off the TBR!

      Delete
  6. Jeez. This book . . . I don't think I can. What made you keep reading it though the subject matter was so depressing? Was it the writing?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I was hoping something good would happen. Yes, the writing is good, and the characters are lovely, but ...

      Delete
  7. I just ordered Family Matters because you suggested it. I hope it isn't this depressing. Somehow I wasn't depressed by the Behind the Beautiful Forever despite how bad people's lives were. I am not sure why. Maybe because the author never seemed to get depressed about the story she was telling?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Family Matters is not as depressing as this one is at all!

      Delete
  8. Ok, there has never been a better metaphor for a book than the one you just dropped. Seriously. And you have to have experienced both to realize just how perfect it is.

    And I DON'T honestly know why people call it one of their favorites of all time - I think it's for the same reasons that people inexplicably love Moby Dick or anything by James Joyce. I can appreciate the skill of the author's craft, but holy cow, how does anyone actually ENJOY it?

    ReplyDelete
  9. This may be a bit too depressing for me. It seems Important and Thought-Provoking, but also Overly Dark. Caps felt necessary for that sentence. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I loved the writing and I wanted desperately for the characters to catch a break. This book is one of the few that broke me down emotionally and literally had me sobbing. It is a very depressing read but worth it...easy for me to say now that it has been more than 5 years since I went through the torture of reading it!

    ReplyDelete

I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.