Hooray to me!! I have FINALLY completed Rohinton Mistry’s mammoth of a book, A Fine Balance. It may have been short-listed for the Booker Prize (1996 I think) and won other awards, but I am struggling to see why – well at least for a third of it!
A Fine Balance is at least 200 pages too long. When you consider that I have waded my way through 600+ pages, a length which usually intimidates and takes a long time for my slow pace, it is not a good thing that the final third has been less than enjoyable – its an amazing feat that I have actually got to the end! I got the impression that the original copy of this novel may have been about fifty million pages long and that some poor editor had to do their best to chop and bin. Obviously when the gazillion pages had been cut to a mere 615, this was seen as a success and they neglected to cut the chunks which were completely irrelevant to the otherwise fabulous tale that had been penned.
The premise of the book is a good one, and for the most part is written beautifully. The ‘starting point’ is set in India during ‘The Emergency’, a time where law and order were granted to the highest bidder. Life is intolerably cruel and no one person, from any walk of life is immune to the bizarre and evil manipulations of the different levels of power throughout society; whether an underworld goon lord or the Prime Minister herself. It is a terrible world, but for some this was no different to the awful existence they had encountered since the British left. As with White Tiger there is a sense that chaos was unleashed and the shifting of castes was just the tip of an erupting, volcanic, iceberg that was being dragged around by Godzilla. Trouble with a capital T. Mistry’s book tracks the pasts and misfortunes of four characters, each with a different starting point in life. It is these narratives which are superb, I thoroughly enjoyed them. The path of these strangers, knowing that at some future point they would be flung together by a series of terrible events, is dark, intriguing, and filled with a sense of pressure and impending doom! There is great and genuine sadness which on more than one occasion brought a tear to my eye.
I was excited reading, I couldn’t wait for the four people to come together, to wonder at what purpose this moment had in their lives and how the writing could continue to grow in greatness to prove one of my favourite books ever. But I seriously wish I had stopped reading at this point. From their living situation developing the book felt like it had become someone else’s. The writing was still engaging to a point, but the subject matter somehow became a bizarre tapestry of side stories and not quite fully formed philosophical statements (mainly about a quilt) about life in India during the awful regimes of the 1970’s. Characters we had encountered on the path to what should have been an enlightening pinnacle, suddenly took centre stage and their already bizarre existence was given more flesh – but unnecessarily so. Their importance had been extricated long ago but for some reason both author and editor felt the need to re-sew them into the narrative, to tie ALL possible ends up with a neat, if not sickeningly tragic, bow. It transformed the book from something brilliant to something I really did not want to read, almost over night! Mainly because these side plots deviated from the main characters I had invested so much in. I kept waiting for something of importance to develop with regards to our odd ‘heroes’ and the clash of character which were secured together, but it never did. Instead, more and more awful things happen and without a single inkling of hopeful redemption.
When I read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was moved and taken over by the reality of situation. It was harrowing and every sense of the word yet at the end of the book you were filled with an overwhelming feeling of hope and possibility. It left you feeling and actively looking for silver linings in the dark corners of the world. A hope that the good fight would go on until justice was served for those in Afghanistan destroyed by the regime. A Fine Balance has none of this hope. It is resolutely depressing to the bitter end and instead of showing that life can be changed with a little hard work and courage, it proves that actually we are all buggered and we may as well jump in front of a train now. Horrible! I could sense long before the end that no positive spin was coming, but I kept hoping. In my mind there was absolutely no way that such a book of hardship could end in the same tone in which it began, I had to read on to be proved right, to dissuade this negative feeling brewing within. It is one of the few times I have finished a book and been genuinely cross at it – at the inanimate object rather than the author for some reason!!
I was so disappointed. As the title suggests, its as if there are two books in this one; two personalities like something schizophrenic. The vast majority is wonderful and I think I would have also forgiven the pointless deviations had there been an ending I could revel in. I understand that the whole point of this story was to portray the true horrors in India and the plight of its people, but with no prevailing light it makes it an awful read. I feel totally depressed this morning and it is all the fault of this book. I have perhaps missed the point somewhere, missed a message being told but I am unlikely to investigate again. I like a tragic story, but at some point there has to be something positive gleaned from it. This just didn’t measure up.