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CanLit Win: Someone You Love Is Gone

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

Heading into the long weekend, I was planning on reading something easy, a “guilty pleasure” style book. But by the time Monday rolled around, and I still hadn’t finished that particular book (or even really cared to read it at all) I decided that I’d maybe need to admit defeat and move on.

(Remember at the beginning of the year I said I’d be better about not finishing books?)

I looked around the apartment for my next book and settled pretty quickly on Someone You Love Is Gone by Gurjinder Basran. Basran is a local author whose debut novel, Everything Was Goodbye was the winner of the Search for the Great BC Novel contest in 2010 and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Award in 2011. It was also a Chatelaine Book Club pick in 2012.

basran

In Someone You Love Is Gone, Basran explores loss and grief and the coming to terms with a new reality. Simran’s mother has just passed away after a long illness. Simran doesn’t know how to cope with the void in her life; the past couple of years have been spent caring for her mother and suddenly her mother doesn’t exist anymore.

Except she kind of does. As she starts moving forward with her life, Simran’s mother haunts her, sits with her and talks about the past, about her siblings and the need for family in this world. They are just little glimpses of her but they offer Simran some comfort. Especially as she works through her family’s past, decisions that were made and the repercussions that rippled out through the generations.

When Simran was 10, her brother Diwa, always a special boy, believing himself to be reincarnated, is sent away to live with relatives. No explanation is ever given to Simran or Diwa; Diwa is gone and the siblings rarely see each other anymore. Soon a new sibling, Jyoti is born but the age difference means the sisters never become close.

There’s a lot going on in this book; three times are moving forward and while that often irritates me, removing me from one story when I’m just starting to settle into it, in Someone You Love Is Gone, it works. Basran has given each story the time that it needs, she hasn’t weighed it down with extraneous details or complications. Each story fits inside the others, like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

Simran is without a doubt the anchor of the story. Parts of the book are in first person from her perspective and again, normally this would drive me crazy, but here it felt natural and right. You can feel Simran’s sadness, the grief that she’s just coming to terms with, both over the loss of her mother and all the other losses she’s had to deal with over the course of a lifetime. All three of the siblings have grown up kind alone inside this family that just wants to function and get through the days, to not dwell on the bad things that have happened.

I thought it might be heavy novel, dealing with death as it does. I was worried that I’d become mired down in the darkness that I assumed would come with this book. But there is a real freedom in this book, a weightlessness that comes from Basran offering her characters redemption.

Basran has crafted a quiet, thoughtful novel. It is at once incredibly personal, the story of one family, and completely universal as I’m sure readers will be able to see themselves and their own families in it.

Another thumbs up on the CanLit front.

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Book Club Pick: The Lowland

We selected The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri as our next book club book. I’d read some not so great reviews after the fact and then over the weekend I was out with one of the girls in my book club and she mentioned that she had been trying to read it and was just not getting into it. Five nights got her 5 pages in because it was just not gripping her.

I was nervous to start The Lowland. I thought that I would be caught in a position where I had to read this book but I wasn’t motivated to get through it because it wasn’t doing it for me.

I will admit that the opening pages did not grip me but that could have had everything to do with the fact that I was suffering from a ridiculous all-day hangover.

the lowland

Subhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up in Calcutta during the years after India’s Independence. Only 15 months separate them and they do everything together. They are a pair in all that they do – they study and play together, they sit their exams together, they excel in school together. By the time the boys reach university, it is time to separate. They go to different universities, make different friends. But they both leave together every morning.

Udayan becomes politically active, aligning his beliefs with the Communism he feels is working so well in Mao’s China. He marries a fellow student, Gauri, without permission, and gets ever more deeply involved in illegal activities to try and change the world.

Subhash goes to America to complete his graduate studies. He always plans to come home but doesn’t return home until a family tragedy forces him to. There he is confronted with the decisions that Udayan has made and the course of Udayan’s life forever changes Subhash’s.

This book reminded me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Or even Middlesex. It is the complete story of a family, grappling with the decisions they make, the consequences spun out over generations. It moves between India and Rhode Island and California, following the story back and forwards through time to provide a clearer picture of what actually happened.

I think the trouble with this book for people is that there is no one character that is truly likeable. Udayan is selfish and outspoken, blind to the merit of a quieter way of life; Subhash is content to let things happen to him, never standing up for himself; Gauri closes herself off, fobbing her choices onto someone else to deal with; Bela is angry and shiftless.

But I think this is one of those novels that doesn’t shy away from the truth of the human condition, that is content to let its characters be their full selves even if they aren’t particularly pleasant. Life is messy: people get angry, they hurt each other, they don’t always take responsibility for themselves. The Lowland shows us how those behaviours can play out. I think this is one of those books that make people better humans. If you were to recognize yourself in these characters, I would think it would make you want to change that part of yourself, to live without those burdens.

And my whole book club gets points for not reading about more white people.

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The Marriage Plot

I asked for a whackload of books for Christmas and I got every single one that I asked for. Lucky doesn’t even begin to cover it. At this point, I’ve read all but one. I’m savouring them! I should do that more often. I’m really looking forward to the last one (Catherine the Great).

One of the ones that I have read is, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Middlesex (which, after reading The Marriage Plot, is now also on my list. Don’t you love when that happens? You pick up a book and find out that this is the author’s 5th time around and all his/her other work is also fantastic?).

The Marriage Plot follows Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell in the last days of their senior year in college and the year that follows. It’s 1982 and things don’t look that great for newly minted college graduates (sound familiar?).

You want to know at what moment I fell in love with this book?

To start with look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, not arranged by title but by date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library collection of Henry James […] there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters.

Those are the first two sentences and could have been describing my very own library! I knew right away that this was going to be one of those books that stayed with me for a good long while.

Madeleine wakes up on the morning of her college graduation in the dress she borrowed from her roommate to wear to a party. She’s not totally sure how she got home, but she does know that her parents are downstairs, buzzing her apartment, waiting to take her to breakfast. Over the course of the morning with her parents we begin to find out the bits and pieces of her life to this point. Her good friend Mitchell shows up. Her good friend that her parents adore but who it turns out Madeleine isn’t speaking to anymore. Her parents ask if they are going to get to meet her boyfriend, Leonard, who they have heard so much about. Madeleine’s inner monologue doesn’t know how to tell them that they broke up three weeks ago.

Memories fill in the blanks. The memory of taking Mitchell home for Thanksgiving freshman year, of the class where she first meets Leonard. Mitchell and Madeleine have a falling out – Mitchell always secretly convinced that Madeleine is the girl he is going to marry, is content to wait out the period of her life where she throws herself at men like Leonard.

As is so often the case, there is more to all of them than meets the eye. Mitchell is concentrating on going to travel for a 8 months after graduation. Madeleine can’t get over the break up with Leonard, having thought that she was going to go with him when he went to work on this research fellowship. And Leonard? He’s probably the most surprising of all.

When she is just about ready for her graduation ceremony, Madeleine gets a call from a friend of Leonard’s. She drops everything and goes to Leonard and before you know it they are back together. But their new reality is not like anything either of them might have envisioned for themselves.

The next year sees Mitchell travel to Europe and India in search of the truth in religion and humanity, not necessarily finding what he thought he might. Leonard struggles with his diagnosis and alternately needs Madeleine and pushes her away. In the middle of both these men, Madeleine tries to carve out her own identity, academically pushing herself to complete her thesis on The Marriage Plot as laid out in the works of Bronte and Eliot and Austen. The way of the novel in 1982, and the roles that women are taking on, the prevalence of divorce puts this kind of novel at risk.

I. Loved. This. Book. It made me want to run back to school and complete a Master’s in Literature. I thought the way the he handles the sensitive issue of mental illness was brilliant and gentle and honest. The book explores the best and the worst in people in all manner of situations. I couldn’t help but relate to the uncertainty surrounding college graduates in the middle of so much economic strife.

The Marriage Plot exceeded all my expectations. It gave me a palatable taste of religion and philosophy, topics that I never gave much thought to when I was in school, which is the last time I thought that I would ever have any kind of interest in those topics.

I loved it. You need to read it. You will thank me.

Grade: A

Stars: 5