A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry

First Sentence: The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed.

I was given a copy of this book on World Book Night earlier this year. A lot of people who like the same sort of books I like have been raving about it and I’ve always meant to read it, so after I got a free copy I felt the time was right. This is a BIG book, primarily concerned with the lives of Dina Dalal who sets up a sewing factory in her rented flat, Omprakash and Ishvar Darji; an uncle and nephew tailor team trying to get by, and Maneck Kohlah; a university student from a small village who comes to the ‘city by the sea’ to study refrigeration. These four lives are about to intersect with each other in increasingly life-altering ways. Set in the 1970’s during a time of political turmoil after a state of ‘Emergency’ has been declared by the government, this is really a novel about India itself, and in that way I think it succeeds admirably. This book, like India, has everything; colour, joy, poverty, hope, love, passion, tragedy, violence and laughter, and even though it is a long book it never feels too long, each page being a pleasure to read. It put me in mind of the parts I enjoyed most in Shantaram, and unlike that book it didn’t feel like it should have been about half the length. Above all else though this book seems to be about our ability to endure and to keep going on in the face of the most horrific adversity, which is summed up nicely in one brief snippet: “How was it that his heart kept beating instead of bursting, his sanity intact instead of shattered like a dropped mirror?”. Surely all this misery piled on misery must reach breaking point at some stage? Can anything stay balanced forever in a world where no pain is ever really forgotten?

[…] nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

For Dina, Ishvar, Omprakash and Maneck, life will never be the same again after fate throws them together one day in 1970’s India…

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Pereira Maintains

Antonio Tabucchi

First Sentence: Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day.

This book was one of those books that I thought was good, almost great, with much to admire, but just not enough to really stand out in my mind for very long after I’d finished it. Even though it’s a relatively short book, coming in at just under 200 pages, it almost feels like it would have worked better as a short story or a novella. That’s not to say this is not a good book, it is. But ultimately I feel it’s one I won’t be going back to, nor would I be in a hurry to hunt out more from Tabucchi. The story itself is one man’s testimony about events that happened to him during a sweltering  Summer in Portugal. The year is 1938 and it is set against a backdrop of social and political unrest. Pereira himself is quite likeable, despite his constant need for Omelette aux fines herbes and lemonade, his likeability almost in jeopardy by the constant refrain of  ‘he maintains’ which dominates the prose. He is solely responsible for the arts section in national newspaper the Lisboa, is forever speaking to his dead wife’s photograph and by all accounts, is a lovable recluse. This is all before he meets the young journalist Monteiro Rossi who, along with his girlfriend Marta will transform Pereira into an altogether different person. I do like this book, and I’d certainly recommend it, especially of you have interest in the particular period of history, but I just feel it falls a little short of the mark on a few crucial levels. Enjoyable but not essential

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