I don’t obsess about finishing a book that is draining the will to live from every fibre of my being. Time is finite and there are way, way too many brilliant books out there to discover.
Apart from that, if I struggle with a book, it can put me off reading for a while – so I lose even more time.
So, now, when I buy books I do more research. I want to be sure that there’s at least a decent chance that I’ll enjoy reading it.
The Lives of Others is one of those books that’s been hanging around the flat for years. It’s a straggler from my days of buying the entire Booker shortlist (yes, good idea, woman who isn’t that fond of literary fiction!).
It took me ages to finish the book. My initial impression of it was Upstairs Downstairs meets The Communist Manifesto meets a posher, Indian version of Bread.
By the end of it, I was left frustrated. You can’t make me spend hours of my life reading about a horrible family and then not show me how the end of the book affects them!
None of the adults have any self-awareness or growth over 500 pages of story. None of them pause for a moment and think “wow, when did I turn into such an unmitigated git?”
What it’s about
The Ghosh family live in 1960’s Calcutta and run a few businesses with varying levels of success. They’re comparatively rich, with the patriarch and matriarch of the family exerting quite a lot of control over their four adult children and their families – who all live with them in one big house.
The main character is the eldest grandson, and we spend a lot of time with him as he struggles to find his identity away from a corrupt and morally bankrupt family. He does this by getting involved in radical politics and turning into a bit of a…well, spoilers.
No, seriously, what is this book about?
This family has 17 family members, most of them get at least one scene told from their viewpoint. I’m pretty sure there are a few other view point characters in the book too.
Each family member has their own issues, motivations and schemes. In every scene with the family, you’re operating at varying degrees of awareness about what character A really thinks about character B. You’re watching the family members vie for power over each other by sabotaging their own nieces and nephews. You’re seeing them take glee in each other’s misfortune, not seeing that the bile they’re all swimming in is corroding the foundations that the family’s success is built on.
In short, these people suck.
There’s one view point character in the entire book that’s sympathetic – and he’s only a focal character towards the end of the book.
Is this book about the story of a family imploding? Is it about the eldest grandson’s search for his own identity outside the family he’s rebelling against? Is it about the political environment of India at the time?
It’s about all of these things and more.
It’s about too much.
There are too many people to keep track of, too many motivations and machinations. It’s draining.
There are some interesting narratives in the book, but they’re all vying for attention – yanked out of the spotlight just as you start to find them interesting, or going on for chapters when they could have been dealt with in a few scenes.
But, I did finish the book, and I feel frustrated at the end because I wanted to see the fallout. So, in some way the book did manage to get some sort of emotion out of me, but it’s not a book I’d read again.