Wednesday, October 27, 2004

An Elegant Darkness

Back in the capital. My final night in Madras was spent speeding my way through a novel called "A Dark-Adapted Eye" by Ruth Rendell writing in her persona as Barbara Vine. R.R. is best known for her carefully crafted murder-mysteries, but I've never managed to get into any of her books before. Maybe I've just never tried, or maybe the ones I've dipped into previously haven't had quite the quality of highly polished, finely tuned intrigue that this one has.

It begins with a situation in which a family of three, a daughter and both her parents await the hour of a relative's death. My first assumption was that all three were conspirators in a murder, because the narrator tells us that there's only one situation in which we can know the exact moment down to the minute of a person's death-to-be. Ah yes, I say to myself, it's going to be one of THOSE books, in which a whole family is party to a ... then I realize I'm wrong. It's no mere murder that the family is silently awaiting the exact timing of, but a hanging. The father's sister is a condemned woman. The narrator's voice, belonging to the to-be-hanged woman's niece, allows us to share the singularity of such a situation and with this introduction leads us step by gentle step down a cold and tragic path.

The quality of this book lies in the exquisite care with which the characters are drawn and the astonishing complexity of a plot that appears at first glance almost pitifully obvious. Since we know without doubt that a violent crime has occurred as a result of which a woman is hanged, what remains is to understand the nature of the crime and the background to it. It is an unusual entry point to a murder mystery -- because there seems to be no mystery. And yet ... there is. Not only is it one that makes for compelling reading, it remains a mystery right till the very last page. And perhaps even beyond it.

The story is located in a small village in England and much of the action takes place during the war years, between the first and second, then into the second and ending somewhat after it. The exposition of the plot takes place at a slow but exceedingly precise pace, like a highly detailed tableau in cross-stitch. We are introduced in pairs and groupings to the members of an English middle-class family, with care taken to show to what precise degree each one is set off from their preferred locations on England's social scale and why. The story centres on two women, the aunt who is hanged at the beginning of the book, Vera Hallyard and her younger sister Eden.

There is a powerful sense of place and the author's absolute understanding of social niceties pickled in time, even as she reveals them in transition. Whereas our murderers of today are often presented as psychotic freaks, the woman at the heart this story is neither a psychotic, nor a freak. Just an unfortunate being, trapped in the amber of her situation, unable to break out of it, unable to bear it. In her desperate condition, we might all glimpse a mirror of so many familiar family situations -- the kindly uncle who slopes into alcoholism, the beautiful cousin who throws away all her chances for a worthless swain, the chance encounter that reveals a vast clanking machinery of hidden passion that was undreamt of till that moment.

It's not the kind of book that will be found in bookshops, but it was in the British Council Library in Madras -- and that, of course, was why I HAD to finish it all in one desperate day, ending bleary-eyed but hugely satisfied at 4.15 a.m.! Fortunately my flight was scheduled for the afternoon and I had 12 hours left in which to gather my wits and return to Delhirium.

Ah yes -- and I also managed to visit my favourite little bookshop, the well-loved, the one-and-only GIGGLES of Connemara Hotel. The owner, Nalini Chettur, is famous for her ability to assess a reader's tastes, always managing to offer up delicacies for each individual's reading needs. She does a great line in coffee and conversation too, so I came away from my encounter feeling well-stuffed besides being laden down with EIGHT books. Two I have despatched without much amusement, but they were ones that I asked for, not offered by Nalini: ARABAT by Clive Barker and ERAGON by Christopher Paolini -- the latter was much vaunted, as its author was 15 when he wrote it. However it doesn't(I'm still reading it) hold my interest, despite a fetching dragon on the cover. The former, about a young girl's adventures in a mysterious OtherSpace called The Arabat simply didn't(I've stopped reading it) hold my attention beyond the first six chapters being neither magical nor well-written enough for me. *shrug* Guess I don't share tastes with the millions of readers who made this a coast-to-coast bestseller in the US.

The others are much more promising. Two by Henry Petroski, who writes marvellous essays on design: SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED and PUSHING THE LIMITS; a Desmond Morris with all the usual pop-sexy trivia: THE NAKED WOMAN; Umberto Eco with ON BEAUTY; MAY CONTAIN NUTS edited by Michael Rosen, a compendium of USAnian humour pieces and THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE by Alexander McCall Smith about our favourite Botswana Detective, Mma Ramotswe. I will report on them as I read 'em, though of course the Eco and Morris are really sort of picture books and won't yield much in the way of reading.

And as for Bartimaeus ... not now, Kato, not now!

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