After all these years, I've finally gotten on board with writing about books here, although I've done this informally before.
Of course the down side to doing booky stuff through The System is that you don't get to choose just any old book you want to write about. But when MotherTalk sent out a mass email announcing that they needed readers for The Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundaresan, I hit the reply button faster than I've swatted some mosquitoes.
For one thing, I just got off a summer bender of romance novels, and the publisher's blurb promised "a sweeping and poignant story of forbidden love." Given that my newly begun progress toward a degree in Technical Writing requires me to read a lot of stuff about analyzing user manuals and creating effective white papers, I figured a little Forbidden Love was in order. Not that the Technical Writing stuff isn't fascinating (especially the stuff about the breakdown of communication when engineers don't understand the cultural values involved in the discussion), but it's not exactly Forbidden Love.
For another, one of my very first blog loves (Forbidden Blog Love!) was Nancy at Under the Fire Star, who posts gorgeous photos and poems by herself and others inspired by her life and travels in India (Here's the tag for all her poetry, which is not at all a bad way to spend an afternoon. Make sure you have tea.)
The Indian Independence Day was just last month (August 15), and I was struck by the fact that all I know about the Indian Independence movement I learned from watching Gandhi when I was 12. I am more than a little suspicious that I'm missing out on some fascinating stuff. For instance, Umamaheswari at All in a Day's Work wrote about her daughter's performance in her school's Independence Day celebration. Her daughter recited:
Women Freedom Fighters! The first name that comes to our mind is Jhansi Ki Rani Laxmi Bai. Today I come dressed as her. Let me introduce her to you. Holding the reins of the horse in her mouth, with her adopted child on her back, she used the swords with both hands. She led her soldiers to war against the British. Even her enemies admired her courage. She fought valiantly against the British until her very end! And so this famous song for her:
Lal chadi, Maidan Khadi,
Kya Khoob ladi, Kya Khoob ladi,
Kya Khoob ladi, Mardaani Woh to
Jhansi wali Raani thi!!
Just try to tell me you don't want to know more about the woman with the reins of her horse in her mouth, her child on her back, and swords in both hands. Just try! *
Finally, the last reason I jumped at the chance to read this book: The title. I am just a sucker for a really great title.
So I settled in to read The Splendor of Silence , historical fiction set in a time and place I'm interested in knowing more about. Plus, also, I hadn't forgotten about the Forbidden Love. Are you kidding?
The first thing you should know is that Splendor, much like Life of Pi for me, is a payoff book. That is, it may not grab you right away, but at some point you will find yourself utterly engrossed, and then the ending will leave you grateful that you kept on going.
In the case of Life of Pi, it was just that I found Pi to be such an incredibly boring character in the beginning of the book, and there wasn't much story happening, either. Contrast this with The Magician's Assistant (my book club's last read), in which most of the plot of the book can be summed up with, "Then she goes to Nebraska," but Sabine is such a fascinating character that I kept popping back to the book at every spare chance, just wondering what Sabine was up to. In fact, this love of character probably explains many of us who confess to blog addictions.**
In Splendor, the difficulty is not that the characters are boring, but that it's hard to get a sense of any one of them. There are just so many characters introduced with major plotlines, and none of them are followed in any length before the storyline switches over to another character, or another time.
Here's the summary of the plot provided by the publisher:
In 1960s Seattle, a young woman named Olivia, reeling from the death of her father, receives a trunk from India containing, among other treasures, a letter from an unknown narrator. Olivia reads it, finally learning about her father's time in India and about the mother she never knew--a history that has lived in silence for her whole life.
Thus begins the story of four days in May of 1942 and the events that would shake the fragile peace in the small kingdom of Rudrakot in northwestern India, for many years under the rule of the British Raj. It is the story of Sam, an American soldier in search of a missing brother, and Mila, the free-spirited daughter of the local political agent, and of their sudden love for each other, ignited dangerously within the social tinderbox of a country on the verge of change.
It turns out that this summary ignores at least five other storylines followed within the book. Some of the storylines unfold simultaneously with the storyline of Mila and Sam's relationship, intertwining and pushing one another forward, but others seem to pop up and then drift off with only a passing connection to the rest of the story. Yet another storyline is given in a series of flashbacks. So the story is framed by Olivia's reading of the letter in 1963, but the story itself contains numerous flashbacks with a large cast of characters.
I probably wouldn't have found the going so difficult at first if I had been able to devote large chunks of time to reading, instead of snatching half an hour here and there. Popping in and out of the story led to a sense of disorientation every time I began reading anew, since I hadn't been anchored to any one of the characters or any one of the storylines early on.
But if you appreciate books with layers of storylines, almost too rich with detail to take in at once, like a perfect slice of baklava (to mix it up, culturally speaking), The Splendor of Silence is for you.
Also, if you are studying for your SATs, the The Splendor of Silence is for you. This is a book with Big Words. Chapter Eighteen opens with, "Lunch was a desultory, somnolent affair, exhausted as they all were by the incalescence of the day." I made it through "desultory" and "somnolent," breathing a sigh of relief, then hit "incalescence" and Gotcha!
But it turns out that I had a great time reading the book, once I sorted out the characters and storylines. The Splendor of Silence is rife with fascinating anecdotes and lovely writing:
"Many years ago, we claimed this as the origin of the kingdom--as the sacred ground upon which Lord Shiva had wept for joy. The name was then shortened to Rudrakot, now to mean the abode of Lord Shiva, not merely of his tears, even more ambitious than the original name, as you see. What had not mattered to the kings who named the land was that no rudrashka tree grew in or around Rudrakot. When we are questioned about the absence of the tree that gives the place its name, you will find us vacillating, with perhaps...at one time...maybe...or but, of course, there was a reason, now just lost in time and legend. The rudrasksha tree grows only at the foothills of the Himalayas; the Sukh desert could never nurture it." Mila began to laugh. "Perhaps this is why Rudrakot shortened its name--the nonexistence of the tree is obvious; Shiva's presence at Rudrakot could not be suspect. For God only shows Himself to those who believe."
The idea of a place defining itself around an absence, the idea that a lack is an opportunity, a space to create belief, is picked up again in my favorite moment, near the end of the book. Olivia is nearly done reading the letter, which is finally giving her the chance to know the mother her father never spoke of:
And this is Olivia's way of remembering her father, by filling all the silences of her childhood with stories of who she is, where she came from, who her mother was. Why her father never married, why he could not replace Mila in his life, why Olivia was enough for him. Olivia is formed from these silences.
Olivia has grown up with a lack not unlike that of Rudrakot, the kingdom named for trees that do not exist within its borders. Olivia, too, is named after an absence: the mother she has never known, not even in stories. The reading of the letter then becomes something even more for her, something momentous and even miraculous, like the story of trees sprouting in the desert, growing where the tears of Shiva fall on the dry earth.
Lovely, isn't it?
This is also a book that treats the difficult subject of colonial India in 1942, just on the verge of Independence from the British, with evenhandedness. While there is no downplaying of the deeply entrenched bigotry of the British living in India at that time, Sundaresan also discusses the hierarchical nature of Indian society at that time. The fascinating interplay of colonialism with the class system of both the British and the Indians defines these characters in surprising ways.
So, yes, The Splendor of Silence is a payoff book. Read it when you're prepared to give her a few hundred pages to bring you into the story, knowing that a little confusion is the price you will pay for finding yourself anxious to find out how several storylines end, which is a fun place to be as a reader.
** I am completely aware that my interest in Sabine as a character versus poor, boring, pre-lifeboat Pi is more a function of my self-indulgent fascination with characters who have more in common with me than a function of the writing. Not that I am jewish, movie star gorgeous, or in love with a gay man. Also, not a magician's assistant.
*** Interview with Indu Sundaresan here.