Monday, January 16, 2017

Book Review: LUCKY BOY

Title: Lucky Boy
Author: Shanthi Sekaran
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons
Pages: 480

This is the story of the sun and the wind and the child they bore. This is the story of the sun and the wind, dragged aground by the meddlesome earth.

Those are the closing lines of Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, and they will only make sense at the end of this emotion-filled book that wrung me out.

Reading Lucky Boy was like being in the embrace of home. Between Indian culture, where my roots lie, and Spanish culture, which strangely I have always felt at home in, it felt as if I knew the two women who are mothers to the same boy.

Eighteen-year-old Mexican Solimar ‘Soli’ Castro Valdez dreams of a better life. Her parents scrounge up the money required to send her off with Manuel, an acquaintance who has promised to spirit her illegally over the border into the United States of America, the magical land of dreams.

On the way, Soli meets Checo, a boy not over 20. She senses that he was the wind that would carry her north. And so she escapes from Manuel who wants her to smuggle drugs into the US. For a brief ten days, she lives a heady life with Checo and his friends, riding the top of a moving train. Checo warns her that if she falls off the moving train, she will be carne molida, ground meat. In spite of the danger, she learns to slip feathers into the cushions of their futures.

Before they reach America, they are separated. Soli reaches Berkeley, and meets her cousin, Silvia, who finds her a job as a nanny at a rich home. Soli learns she is pregnant, but refuses abortion, suspecting that it must be Checo’s. Her happiness was terrain pitted with melancholy.

Meanwhile, Kavya, an Indian American woman, and her husband Rishi have tried and failed to get pregnant. Kavya’s own mother makes her feel a failure. In a culture in which mothers brag about their offspring’s achievements, Kavya has nothing, neither achievement nor offspring.

Kavya longs for motherhood, even when a friend warns her, They will suck away your time, your body, your mind, your sleep, your plans – everything you wanted to do. Gone. You will be a dry husk of your former self… You, as you know it? Over. She tells herself that she wanted a self of herself, a child.

Once Ignacio ‘Nacho’ is born, Soli’s confidence with motherhood runs concurrent with Kavya’s inability to do so. Soli tells Nacho stories about Checo, who is built into Soli’s memories. When you have just one possession, you guard it with your life. The you that once centered your universe becomes nothing but a keeper of the one precious thing.

Soli’s goal is to lie low and escape police attention. Say the word government to an immigrant with no papers and all you get is a system wide shutdown” silence, and the faint hum of fear. But when Silvia jumps a stop sign, both come under the notice of the police. Soli is found to be an illegal and is taken to detention, while Nacho is sent to foster care.

Kavya and Rishi take in Ignacio as part of the foster care programme. Kavya becomes the singing, story-telling, inventor-of-the-universe kind of mother, even though she has no real claim to the child. Even though she knows Iggy’s mother will return. Even though her mother warns her in a makeshift, made-to-order proverb, when you make dal for another woman’s child, keep it a little bit raw. 

Kavya isn't going to take her advice and builds her love on a fault line. But Soli is not about to give up her child, and for Kavya and Rishi, The first tremors had begun. The couple fight, believing Iggy’s future will be best with them. Will Iggy remain with the Reddys or will he be restored to Soli?

The writing, when Shanthi was talking about Soli’s village, felt lazy and languid. Then it acquired a sense of urgency when talking about Soli’s life.

The stories of Soli and Kavya come to us in alternate chapters.

At heart, both are immigrant women. The only difference is that Soli is undocumented while Kavya was born on American soil.

Soli has her American dream and Kavya has an insatiable dream to be a mother. And it seems that both are forced to suffer in their desire to attain their dreams.

At the wedding of Preeti Patel, Kavya’s overachieving childhood friend, she is surrounded by several aging women of Indian origin, all of them intent on knowing about details of her life they really have no right to know. Like gulls thrown a crust of bread, they frenzied around her, their voices rising to shrieks. Ah, I know the truth of that line from experience.

I was particularly touched by Shanthi’s description of motherhood – To love profoundly, and be loved. To shape her own blood and body into sparkling new life. She could be home to someone, a safe and soft place in a world of ragged edges.

It is a world that Kavya is denied, first by an inability to conceive, and when she does, through miscarriage. To a childless mother, it appears that other parents are artisans of a dying craft.

Shanthi’s reference to the irony of American mothers speaking French to their American children, fathers explaining the physics of under-ground transport to their preschoolders appealed to me. I am an Indian mother who tries to speak Spanish to her Indian children.

Both mothers weave their reasons for existence around Ignacio. Soli is denied her right to motherhood on account of her illegal status, while Kavya struggles to retain her hold on Iggy.

The symbolism is evident in the shape sorter, the toy that requires children to fit shapes into holes. Iggy puts the right shape into the right hole, while Kavya as a child never could. Even as a grownup, it appears that she is forcing things where they do not belong.

Generally, I found Soli’s story more appealing than Kavya’s. They are both finely etched characters, with well written stories. Both move us as readers and hold our attention, but Soli’s struggles and the sheer intensity of the horrors she goes through staked the greater claim on my loyalty. I wished that Shanthi would restore both Nacho and Checo to her.

The book raises questions about who is a real mother and we realise that a mother is the one who gives birth as much as the one who brings up a child with love.

However, a child is not a thing that can be shared, and so in the end, only one mother has Ignacio completely to herself. I won’t say which one, only that the resolution felt deeply right.

This is one book I’d like to read again.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).


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