Asian American literature Fans Wednesday Mega Review Round Up

In this post, reviews of Aatish Taseer’s Noon (Faber & Faber, 2011), Neesha Meminger’s Jazz in Love (Ignite Books, 2011); Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift Of Rain (Weinstein Books, 2008); Roma Tearne’s Mosquito (Europa Editions, 2008); Roma Tearne’s Bone China (Europa Editions, 2009).

(cover to the UK edition I believe)

(us edition)

Aatish Taseer’s Noon is an episodic novel that deals with themes of kinship, upward mobility, religion, class and caste. Noon is Taseer’s second novel, after The Temple-Goers. This novel is difficult to review because of its highly fragmented quality; there is not a clear narrative that tracks through and at different points, there are fairly abrupt shifts in temporality. The most accomplished sections reveal the changes undergoing the South Asian region at large. The ostensible protagonist, an affluent young man by the name of Rehan, returns home to India in the middle of the novel; he is a writer with grand plans to publish his creative work, but his laptops as well as a safe are stolen. By this time, we know some basic facts that include that fact that Rehan was raised by his mother who is Sikh; his biological father is nowhere to be found, though it is understood that he is a man of great importance and wealth. This middle section is quite brutal in its depiction of the way that servants within the household get treated in the face of suspicion. Everyone becomes a suspect and Taseer reveals how the line between the elites and the lower classes becomes exceedingly large when it comes to issues of ownership and propriety. Even the most loyal of servants are held for questioning and after a certain point, it’s unclear whether or not the investigation will help to find the actual culprit. The final section sees Rehan make contact with his biological family in Pakistan; given his father’s tremendous wealth, his half-brothers and relatives look on him with some suspicion and do not quite know what to make of his journey. Is this Rehan’s identity quest or is he after the family fortune? Rehan soon makes friends with Isphandiyar, otherwise known as Isffy, who is also looked on with disdain in the family, due to his rather wild partying ways. At some point, it seems as though Isffy is being blackmailed for shooting a pornographic video with his girlfriend. Isffy’s main concern thus becomes discovering who the culprit is and shifts our attention again as readers to the ways that power centralizes in those that can question and those that can target others for crimes. While Taseer gives us a great sense of the kinds of divides that structure modern South Asian society, the novel has an unfinished quality that gives it an ethereal feel, where its component parts do not fully congeal.

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A Review of Neesha Meminger’s Jazz in Love (Ignite Books, 2011).

The protagonist at the center of Neesha Meminger’s second young adult novel, Jazz In Love, is Jasbir Dhatt, who is also nicknamed Jazz (therefore, the title). She’s in high school and definitely boy crazy, but her parents throw a major wrench into the equation when they decide that she’s old enough, at 17, to begin thinking about marriage. Indeed, they begin by giving Jazz a set of pictures from which to pick a set of acceptable candidates, meaning that they are of a similar class, ethnic, racial, and religious background. Of particular importance is that Jazz maintain her strict Sikh religious traditions, but Jazz is the rebellious sort and does not even want to be thinking about marriage. Her first pre-marriage get-together occurs with a smart and suitable young man from Canada named Gurmit (nicknamed Mit), but she soon finds out that Mit is in fact gay. Thus, they hatch a plan to pretend that they are interested in each other, so that both their parents will get off their backs for the immediate time. On the school front, Jazz finds herself enamored of a new student named Tyler R., who is Indian by way of Trinidad. The problem is of course that he’s not the right kind of Indian for Jazz’s parents, so she knows she must keep any romantic dalliance a secret. The book wouldn’t be complete without a romantic rival and it seems as though one of Jazz’s friends, Jeevan, might be the ticket. There is also a significant side story based upon the family’s close connection to a woman, Auntie Kinder, and her daughter, Pammi. Auntie Kinger is in the midst of a serious custody battle with her former husband and thus the Dhatt family offers what support they can.

The novel definitely had me laughing out loud at certain moments. Meminger is quite keen on getting the teenage lingo down and infusing it with a particularly ethnic flavor. For instance, Jazz is critical of “bindi-bos” and routinely makes references to “turbanators.” At the same time that she marks her ethnic difference, she is also keen on what might to be more universal teen interests. She loves romance novels, helps out at a local salon, and worries about the next school dance. I couldn’t help but wonder if Meminger wanted to refer to Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, as Jazz has as many nicknames as Jyoti (from Mukherjee’s novel) does. Jazz’s mother calls her Jassy, while Tyler calls her Baby J., Mit calls her Jazzy, and then there’s just Jazz. In any case, the movements from one nickname to another seem to recall her chameleonic personality, perhaps a nod to the challenges faced by the child of immigrants.

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A Review of Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift Of Rain (Weinstein Books, 2008).

(I'll agree with that "glorious" blurb on the title haha!)

I was not prepared for the emotional impact this book was going to have on me, but I suppose one must always steel oneself with any book that is based upon wartime atrocities. In this vein, Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain has much in common with Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Madeleine Thien’s Certainty, and Sabina Murray’s The Caprices, as texts that delve into the darkness of conflict, brutality, and human nature. One can easily see why Eng’s debut novel was long listed for the Booker Prize; it has that scope and feel of an epic movie; you can see he might have read writers like Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham (who is also directly referenced within the novel). The protagonist, Philip Hutton, is 72 years old at the start of the novel and the novel is set in Malaysia. A visit by another aged woman, Michiko Murakami, pushes Philip to recount his life story; Michiko was a former flame of Hutton’s sensei, Endo-san, prior to the World War II era.

As we go back in time, we discover that Hutton is a biracial child of a business magnate, Noel Hutton. Noel Hutton had already fathered three British children (William, Edward, and Isabel), but later remarries a local woman and fathers Philip. Philip’s mother dies at a young age and Philip feels this loss keenly, as he understands he is racially different than his sister and brothers. While his father and siblings are away in London, Philip strikes a friendship with Endo-san, a martial arts teacher, who has moved to an island located across from the family property (called Istana). As Philip gets closer to Endo-san, the war also moves closer and closer to Malaysia. By the time Noel and Philip’s half-siblings have returned, the war is just on Malaysia’s doorsteps. William decides to enlist in the navy, while Philip gains a rival and friend, Kon, who is the son of a Chinese mafia leader. Both Kon and Philip, due to their linguistic skills, are approached by intelligence officers to potentially spy on the Japanese. But believing that he might be able to protect his family by working for the Japanese as they take control over Malaysia, Philip casts his card in a dangerous direction.

I’m going to end the review here. I looked online to see other people’s responses to this novel and they are vastly different. Some reviewers called his language too “flowery,” others thought that the novel was too slow. I didn’t agree at all. I was swept up in the novel and it sort of shows how subjective the reading experience can truly be. The novel is longer, clocking in over 400 pages, but I didn’t feel that page length at any point and I wasn’t ever skipping ahead to see what was going to happen.

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A Review of Roma Tearne’s Mosquito (Europa Editions, 2008), Bone China (Europa Editions, 2009).

Mosquito is another one of those novels that has been on my to-read list. At some point, I know it was longlisted for a major book prize, which was when I first heard about it. The novel is simply exquisite even though it covers such a difficult topic—that of the Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. The ostensible protagonist is a Singhalese novelist, Theo Samarajeeva, who returns to Sri Lanka looking to get inspiration for his newest book. He retains the help of a loyal, protective, and philosophical servant named Sugi. He also befriends a 17 year old girl, Nulani Mendis, who is a budding painter and lives next door. Though considerably older, Theo begins to develop romantic feelings for Nulani, a signal that he has finally come to terms with the tragic death of his wife, Anna, many years before and that he is ready to move on. He also introduces Nulani to his painter friend, Rohan, who lives in Colombo, with his wife, Giulia. A separate storyline involve a Tamil orphan, Vikram, who is groomed by a Tamil Tiger separatist to carry out vicious attacks and terrorist plots. Vikram comes to be intrigued with Nulani and considers how to gain her favor. The novel turns quite a dark corner when Theo oversteps his liberties in an area that is a little bit wary of his politics. Indeed, Theo has shown great compassion toward those of Tamil ancestry, despite the fact that he is Singhalese. Thus, he becomes a target for violence, endangering not only himself, but all those that he loves. Tearne has that rare gift to enrapture the reader with her ability to characterize such rounded characters who exist in a lush landscape; at the same time, we’re left absolutely exhausted by the perils these characters face. Like some of the other “epic” novels I’ve read recently such as Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, I can easily see this novel adapted for a movie.

Let me begin my brief review of Tearne’s Bone China by saying that, as soon as I finished the novel, I immediately ordered Brixton Beach and The Swimmer, both which are not available in the United States and have, as far as I can tell, only been published in the United Kingdom. Tearne is absolutely the kind of writer I adore: there’s something always poetic and empathic about her writing. Bone China is not as tight as Mosquito; it’s far more sprawling as a kind of transnational family epic because it has so many major characters. At the center of Bone China is the de Silva family, which is made up of a very attractive couple: Aloysious and Grace, and then their five children: Jacob, Thornton, Christopher, Alicia, and Freida. Grace’s cousin, Myrtle, also lives in the household. The time is pre-independence Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon, so we know we’re going to be in rough and tumble waters. Alicia’s husband, Sunil, for instance, is killed during anti-Tamil riots; so, too, is Vijay, a man with whom Grace had been having an affair. One by one almost all of Grace’s children travel to England to start new lives and escape the anti-Tamil sentiment; only Freida will remain. But, England, with all of its supposed justice, laws, and colonial superiority, will not become the land that they had hoped for. At this point, the novel focuses primarily on Thornton’s marriage to a woman named Savitha, and their one daughter, Meeka, who though showing an incredible talent for playing the piano, cannot seem to master her science disciplines to the great disappointment of her father.

Though the novel is relatively long, Tearne always sustains our interest because she is particularly gifted in illuminating the complicated interiorities of her characters and at moving the plot along so that we read the most pivotal events. Given the fact that she provides a fairly comprehensive arc for most of the seven de Silva characters, the novel is quite an extraordinary feat.

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