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).

Tuesday, January 03, 2017


Title: The Divided City
Author: Luke McCallin
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 400

This was the first time that I read a murder mystery that read so well, I mentally classified it as literary fiction. It was so much more than a whodunit. The cat-and-mouse game between the leading character, Reinhardt, and the killer, the motivation of the killer and the beauty of the writing raised this mystery far above a murder investigation.

Post World War II, tough cop Gregor Reinhardt is back in Berlin, the city he had escaped from when the Nazis gained supremacy. Assigned to the night shift, he is called to a rundown building, where he finds two dead bodies.

One of the corpses is identified as David Carlsen, a British agent, who is thought to have been killed by a criminal as part of a barroom brawl. The other dead man is a former Air Force veteran, Noell, whose case is assigned to Reinhardt, while others take on the Carlsen case.

The British officer Markworth wants Reinhardt to investigate the Carlsen case. Very soon, the Soviets too become interested in the case.

Reinhardt believes that both murders are the work of one man, a serial killer, since the manner in which the men have been killed is the same. Both men have died from having sand shoved down their throats. Reinhardt believes that there is more to the killings than the Berlin kripo he works at is willing to understand. But no one pays heed to his beliefs.

Soon yet another body is found, murdered in the same way. When research through the newspapers of a few months prior indicates that there have been other such murders committed, the police department reluctantly agrees that there might be something to Reinhardt’s theory.

As the body count rises, Reinhardt struggles hard to solve the case. What links the murder victims is the fact that they were all pilots who belonged to the same squadron and were involved in some questionable and illegal activity.

But there are no clues at hand and the killer seems unbeatable. Reinhardt’s physical and mental strength are stretched thin. To add to his woes, the ranks of his enemies seem to grow, as the Soviets and the Nazis all seek to prey on him. The investigation becomes more difficult as his own colleagues seem to enjoy plotting his downfall.

Meanwhile, the Allied powers politic and scramble among themselves, intent on getting ahead in what Reinhardt describes as the race for whatever glitters in the rubble.

Will Reinhardt be able to solve the case? Or will it prove to be his undoing? That’s what you have to read the book to find out. One thing I will tell you, the revelations are a surprise.

The book is divided into five parts, each named so cleverly and appropriately. Part 1 is named How Happy the Dead, in a city in which the living have no food or hope, where folks are separated from their loved ones. Parts 2 to 5 are called By His Work is a Craftsman Known; The Only Blessing Wickedness Possesses; All Guilt Avenged and The Devil Is Never So Black.

Berlin is divided between the members of the Allied Forces, the Americans, Russians, British and the French. The city is a wreck, a ruin of its former self, a place with no glass on its windows, just gaping fissures on ruins.

Post-war Berlin is in a shambles, not unlike post-war Reinhardt, ravaged by external forces. Reinhardt is a haunted man, haunted by the ruins of his city, the wreck he has become, the failed hopes of his son who became a Nazi, his own failing health, and his physical failings. They make him a deeply authentic character. I found Reinhardt most admirable.

Add to this, the sense of loneliness he suffers in his professional career. He is disliked in the police force, because he fought as part of the Allied Forces against the Nazis.

His life is further complicated when his son, Freidrich, once a fervent Nazi and a prisoner of war, is released from a POW camp. Much as the father longs to comfort his son, he is thwarted by the sins Friedrich committed, for which the young man believes there can be no pardon. 

The uncertain dynamics of the father-son relationship are beautifully brought out. Reinhardt first loses his son to Nazism, and then to his excesses, as Friedrich becomes involved in something so distasteful that his whole being castigates itself as unclean, outcast, and yet the father longs for true reconciliation with the son.

All these aspects, combined with his own inherent strength of character, Reinhardt a very noble and interesting character.

The other characters that I enjoyed getting to know were Brauer, Reinhardt’s friend who often puts himself in grave danger to help him, and Markworth, the one person who knows Reinhardt better than himself. I also felt for the orphans, fending for themselves while bargaining to retain their freedom with their lucky strikes.

The beauty of the prose is something that I would particularly like to draw attention to. I’ve never thought of war as anything but horrible, but here the author describes his pained romance with Berlin, soon after the war, as the city struggles to get to its feet. In the process, McCallin exposes its bruised and wounded raw beauty.

Even as the Allied powers bicker among themselves, Germany and Germans struggle for their basic needs. Reinhardt puts it eloquently, Defeat is an orphan. An unloved only child. His American friend, Collingridge, adds his own cultural spin to the sense of desperation when he qualifies Reinhardt’s description by adding, A redheaded stepchild.

In a scenario in which everyone is needy, some people are more unequal than others. Reinhardt observes, Another time-honored stricture for a man to take his failings out on his woman or children.

In recognizing the frailty of women, he also acknowledges their strength when he says, Women queuing up for bread? I hear that’s where revolutions often start.

And while we’re talking about great quotes, here’s another one spoken by Markworth who says, No one remembers what they did, no one remembers the consequences of their actions. People walk uncaring into the future and have no idea of what bloody ties stretch out behind them.

The Divided City gives us a peek into history. Having learned history from one perspective, and that the victor’s, most of us are clueless about what ordinary Germans went through, particularly those that didn’t support the Nazis, but still got dragged into the war and its aftermath.

Reading this book could well be an enlightening experience.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).


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