Thursday, June 21, 2012

12. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

By Jacqueline Kelly

I’m generally fond of coming of age tales and 19th century naturalists, so when I heard about this YA novel about a 12-year-old girl in turn of the century rural Texas who bonds with her distant grandfather by studying the natural world around them, I couldn’t resist and requested this as a Christmas gift.

I’m also glad that I delayed reading this until my summer vacation in Northern California, where we explored parts of the Sierra Foothills, Lake Oroville, the Redwood Forests, and the coastal sand dunes. Our trip culminated in a stay at a lovely garden cottage, where we saw a variety of birds. The surroundings provided the perfect backdrop to read Kelly's passages describing how Calpurnia and Grandfather Tate observe the wildlife on their estate.

Kelly has an engaging, naturalistic style which suits the realistic character-driven story about a girl with a thirst for knowledge who is obviously torn between her duties as a dutiful daughter and striking out on her own in some way despite 19th century restrictions. There are no dramatic arches or life-changing revelations for Calpurnia that tend to occur in coming-of-age novels, and the young heroine, portrayed as innately curious, intelligent and observant, was also refreshingly free of the annoying trappings of the “precocious adolescent” found in way too many books of this ilk.  Calpurnia spoke, thought and behaved like a twelve year old girl would (instead of, say, talking like an old man in those Flavia de Luce books).

Certain readers who prefer a more dynamically constructed heroine, or something more plot-driven, might be disappointed at the lowkeyness of this novel. Even as a character-driven story, the protagonist Calpurnia evolves gradually. She is obviously in conflict with pleasing her mother and wishing to fulfill her dreams of becoming a naturalist, and you know that her progress will be a difficult one. I also appreciated the subtle and somewhat ambiguous ending. You’re left unsure as to whether Calpurnia will ever realize her dream of becoming a naturalist, or even be permitted to attend university. Events happen, but they unfold in a normal, everyday kind of way.

Wikipedia provides a very appropriate summary of the ending and theme:

Callie fears that her free-roaming days may be at an end, though, when she receives a frightening Christmas gift: a book from her mother entitled "The Science of Housewifery". 

Throughout the novel, Callie must learn to balance her own independent and curious personality with the restrictions placed on a girl at the turn of the 19th to 20th century. As new inventions are presented in Callie's life, she adjusts and evolves, first with the wind machine her brother brings home, then with a marvelous new beverage called Coca Cola. 

Ultimately, though, it is the introduction of the telephone in the small Texas town that symbolizes the changes ahead for Callie. As Granddaddy tells her, "The old century is dying, even as we watch. Remember this day.” As the book ends, the 20th century dawns, leaving the reader hopeful that it will bring with it new opportunities for the feisty young Calpurnia. 

A very thoughtful and engaging story overall.  This is the kind of book I would like to hold onto for my currently incubating daughter when she grows old enough to read!

Monday, June 18, 2012

11. The White Tiger

By Aravind Adiga

This 2008 Man Booker prize winner was a used bookstore find at Amy’s Books in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and was on my radar because I was intrigued by the premise of a lower caste, uneducated son of a rickshaw puller who becomes a driver in contemporary India and then ends up murdering his employer. It has also been a very long while since I read a novel set in India, with the very fine A Fine Balance having been read over a decade ago.

It took me a while to get into the story, as I was not fond of the conceit of the protagonist, Balram Halwai, narrating his tale in the form of a series of letters addressed to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Balram admires the Premier as the great leader of a country that, like India, is fast becoming a rising economic super-power, but unlike India, China has got its act together thanks to the tight control of the Communist regime, while India is still a huge mess. I suppose it is a given that the majority of murderers have a healthy dose of narcissism and need some kind of outlet to boast about themselves, as the faux humble tone of the narration is consistent throughout the novel. Take for example:

    Oh, I could go on ad on about myself, sir. I could gloat that I am not just any murderer, but one who killed his own employer (who is a kind of second father), and also contributed to the probably death of all his family members. A virtual mass murderer. 
    But I don’t want to go on and on about myself… 

Of course, Balram does go on and one about himself!

Once I got past his avid navel-gazing, the novel was quite good and very interesting. The White Tiger wasn’t quite the level of A Fine Balance, but it was still a rich read, quite dark and unflinching realistic yet also satirical at times. I even became sympathetic of Balram. At first, Balram was appreciative of his progress, having relied on his own wits to escape his poor village and transcend his sweet-maker caste to become the driver of a rich man in the big city. He is immediately drawn to his dashing and well-intentioned employer, Ashok, but eventually comes to despise him when he realizes that he is really a weak man who gets corrupted and domineered by his unscrupulous older brother, Mukesh.

As Balram drives Ashok and his family around the city, he witnesses the bribing of government officials, various indignities committed against the poor and downtrodden, the indulgent lifestyles of the rich, and the gradual disintegration of Ashok’s marriage.  The turning point comes one night when Ashok’s wife, Pinky Madam, decides to drive the car herself and hits a child by accident. With Mukesh’s influence, and despite the protests of his wife, Ashok decides to frame Balram for the hit and run in the police report.

The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who ar there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle-class masters. We have left the villages, but the masters still own us, body, soul, and arse.

Balram then decides that the only way that he will be able to escape India’s "Rooster Coop" (servant class system) is by plotting the murder of Ashok and robbing him of the bribe money during one of his “drops”.

...only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed--hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters--can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.
  It would, in fact, take a White Tiger. 

As this Guardian review mentions, Adiga’s unflattering portrait of India as a society racked by corruption and servitude has caused a bit of an uproar in his homeland. And it does make you wonder if this middle-class, Oxford-educated ex-Time magazine correspondent turned debut author is being a kind of  a "literary tourist ventriloquising others' suffering and stealing their miserable stories to fulfil his literary ambitions?" As taken from the review, Adiga's response is:

"At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the west, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society. That's what writers like Flaubert, Balzac and Dickens did in the 19th century and, as a result, England and France are better societies. That's what I'm trying to do - it's not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination." 

That, though, makes Adiga's novel sound like funless didacticism. Thankfully - for all its failings (comparisons with the accomplished sentences of Sebastian Barry's shortlisted The Secret Scripture could only be unfavourable) - The White Tiger is nothing like that. Instead, it has an engaging, gobby, megalomaniac, boss-killer of a narrator who reflects on his extraordinary rise from village teashop waiter to success as an entrepreneur in the alienated, post-industrial, call-centre hub of Bangalore. 

 I must say, I agree!