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Anuradha Roy, The folded earth (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

December 16, 2011

Anuradha Chenoy (Jawahar Lal Nehru University,...

At last I’m posting my first review for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize longlist reviewing project. The book is The folded earth  by Indian writer Anuradha Roy.  Like many others, my first reaction when I saw this book listed was to wonder whether Anuradha was another name for Arundhati Roy – but it isn’t. She is, however, used to readers confusing her – and now that we have cleared that up, I will get on with my review.

The folded earth is Roy’s second novel. It’s a contemporary story about a young Hindu woman, Maya, who marries a Christian man, Michael, thereby angering both her parents and his. Consequently, when Michael dies, mountaineering, after only 6 years of marriage, she has no family to turn to for support. Grief-striken her solution is to move to Ranikhet, the nearest town in the Himalayan foothills to where he died. The novel chronicles her life in that town – the work she does, the friends she makes. It’s a fairly simple plot, though there are some complications: there’s the mysterious Veer who comes and goes and with whom she develops an uneasy relationship, and there’s the backdrop of conflict as the impending elections bring into focus Christian-Hindu tensions. There are also some references to real people – to the romantically involved Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, and to the legendary big-cat hunter Jim Corbett.

The main appeal of the book for me was the evocation of village life through its colourful characters. They include Ama, the  stereotypical but nonetheless believable wise village woman; Charu, her lovelorn but resourceful granddaughter; Mr Chauhan, the officious Administrator; Diwan Sihab, the eccentric would-be biographer of Corbett and generous landlord to Maya; Puran, the simple cowherd; Miss Wilson, the austere principal of the Catholic school at which Maya works. And of course, Maya, herself, who is the first person narrator of the novel. These characters come alive and we care about them, even Mr Chauhan who, with his attempts to beautify Ranikhet (“In foreign countries I have heard people have to pick up even their dog’s … waste from roads”), provides light comic relief. He is not totally benign though, as he is also behind one of the book’s cruellest moments when his henchmen torture Puran.

I also enjoyed the writing. Roy’s descriptions of the foothills and seasonal changes bring the landscape alive:

… I stood looking at the mountains, which had risen out of the monsoon sky. Clouds were piled high at their base so that they floated in mid-air, detached from everything earthly. Something in the quality of the light made the peaks appear translucent, as if the molten silver sky were visible through them.

Her descriptions of people and their relationships are often spot-on, such as this of a new relationship:

We were too new and fragile, too skinless to be exposed to daylight just yet.

Roy explores some of the changes confronting the region, particularly in relation to religious difference, education, and the role of women. Should women be educated, and if so how much? (Ama, for example, would like to see Charu educated so that “she won’t let a man get away with treating her badly” but not so much that it will stop her getting a husband.) How do hardworking villagers comprehend the seasonal influx of wealthy travellers? Here is Ama again:

Travelling is all very well [...] But it’s for people with money to burn and nothing better to do but eat, drink and idle. Why go walking up and down hills for pleasure? We do that everyday for work.

Social conflict and change are real issues in this neck of the woods!

And yet, despite these positives, the book doesn’t quite hang together, mainly, I think, because it doesn’t know what it is. Is it about coming to terms with grief, an ideas novel about political tensions in contemporary India, a mystery about Michael’s death, a hymn to the Himalayan region (in the face of encroaching urbanisation), or all of the above? I suspect Roy intended all of these but the book is a little too disjointed, a little too unfocused to quite pull it off. The politics seem important but are mostly a sideline to the personal stories. For the political ideas to have impact they needed to collide in some major way with the characters rather than form a backdrop as they do here. There is a mystery about Michael’s death but Roy doesn’t build or sustain the tension well, and when the true story comes out it’s neither surprising nor particularly powerful. There are references to the destruction of the natural world, to humans making “anthills out of the mountains”, to “the distant past of the forests when the shadow of a barasingha’s horns flitted through the denser woods”, but the ideas are not fully integrated into the story.

I’m not sorry to have read it, however. It’s not a ground-breaking book and it doesn’t fully cohere, but there is a lot to enjoy – the writing, the exotic (to me) setting, and the characters, for a start. I don’t imagine this will be my top-ranked book in the longlist but neither would I discourage people from reading it.

From the team: Matt (A Novel Approach) had similar reactions to mine, and Fay (Read, Ramble) also had reservations.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Anuradha Roy
The folded earth
London: MacLehose Press, 2011
257pp.
ISBN: 9780857050441

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2011 9:38 pm

    A very fair review. I must say that I adored it.

    • December 16, 2011 9:44 pm

      Wow, that was quick Mark. Thanks for commenting … I can see why people – and many do – adore it. There is a lot to enjoy. I particularly loved Ama and her groundedness.

  2. December 17, 2011 2:21 am

    Thanks for the author clarification because when I first saw your title I read it as Arundhati Roy! The book sounds ambitious and like there is quite a lot going on. I can see how difficult it might be to keep everything together. I just finished a book that had the same problem.

    • December 17, 2011 7:40 am

      Yes, there is a lot going on, Stefanie. I guess it’s better to be ambitious than not isn’t it? It shows she has something to say, some heart to he writing.

  3. December 17, 2011 8:32 am

    I enjoyed reading your very thorough review and despite the not-quite-holding-together conclusion the book still seems very appealing and with several valid themes. It’s hard to discount or pull apart the massive effort Roy must have made. Makes one realise how hard it is to make a book work for an audience!

    • December 17, 2011 9:45 am

      Thanks Catherine. You would better know the massive effort than I? But yes, it’s certainly worth reading. I wondered as I wrote my review whether the issue is tone … I think that and voice may be the critical things that would have pulled it together more but I can’t put my finger on it without it feeling nitpicky.

  4. December 17, 2011 11:56 am

    Three out of three say OK but not brilliant – no arguing with that :)

    • December 17, 2011 4:40 pm

      No, it’s interesting isn’t it. No collusion either. I hadn’t seen Fay’s before I wrote mine, and I hadn’t properly read Matt’s, though I knew he’d reviewed it, because I like to come fresh and read reviews AFTER!

  5. December 17, 2011 2:32 pm

    Hmm, I wonder what Padma would think of this? I believe she’s not the hugest fan of the *other* A. Roy. However, I doubt I could pull her away from her Keating book to read this :P

  6. Brenda Yuzhno permalink
    December 22, 2011 1:37 am

    I loved the book. I don’t think it was just the exotica. For me, the clear contrast in the two men in her life was interesting. I loved the language, the sights, sounds and smells of the places – and characters. To me, it was coherent, though a difficult reality to accept. But thank you for helping me distinguish between the two Roys, as I want to recommend it to friends and was searching for the correct title.

    • December 22, 2011 9:27 am

      Thanks so much Brenda for commenting – and welcome to Whispering Gums. I do agree it was more than exotica. My point was that it was an exotic setting for me and that added to its interest. I did like the writing – her language, her descriptions. I’m glad I provided you with some help!! And I’m glad that you added another voice and perspective to the discussion.

Trackbacks

  1. Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize « A Novel Approach
  2. The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011) « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  3. Anuradha Roy, The folded earth (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize ... | The writers' cubicle | Scoop.it
  4. More about the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist 2011 « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  5. Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize #2 « A Novel Approach
  6. The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy | Iris on Books

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