Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Short but sweet (or intense, or scary): Two novellas worth reading

A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor A Bad Character (7 August 2014) by Deepti Kapoor

Vibrant, dark and passionate, Deepti Kapoor's short debut novel - which feels like a memoir - is a meditation on the life of a young, educated woman in modern India, and a raw account of a forbidden and ultimately destructive relationship. The narrator is apparently named Idha, but this is only referenced once, on the first page, and there is some ambiguity as to whether it is even her real name: 'I give myself a name, I wear it out... A charm that protects me.' Idha means 'insight' - maybe the name is a deliberate choice on the part of the narrator. Idha's lover, too, is never named, adding to the sense that this is a semi-autobiographical story. The setting is Delhi in the early twenty-first century, and the lover, though nameless, gives the book its title: he was a man who, the narrator tells us at the very beginning, died when she was twenty-one, and was described in a police soundbite as 'known to us... he was a bad character'.

The narrator tells her story from a 'present' perspective which appears to be about ten years since the central events the book describes. The main action takes place when Idha is twenty years old, a student at college, and lives with her aunt, who constantly pushes her into meetings with bland potential husbands. She has a certain amount of freedom - she is getting a good education, is from a middle-class family, has her own car, and often wanders (or drives) the city alone. Still, she feels constantly aware of the limits of her life - of being a woman - and bored by what is expected of her, although she doesn't seem to know what it is she wants instead until she meets her lover. When she encounters this charismatic but ugly man in a café, it is his very ugliness that attracts and excites her. The two of them enter into the sort of affair that feels doomed from the start, volatile and all-consuming. In this second life, always kept secret from Idha's family, he drags her into the underbelly of the city, replete with sex, crime, illegal raves, drugs. There is some violence and emotional manipulation on his part, but unusually, it rarely seems that Idha is not in control, and you sense that he is just as confused and frustrated as she is.

The narrative style isn't entirely conventional: Kapoor switches between present and past tense, between first and third person, and at many points there is a sudden jump from one point in the narrator's past to another. As names are rarely used, it's not always clear which 'him' she's talking about, or whether 'she' refers to another woman, or to herself. As a result there are passages that require more than one reading to be properly understood and absorbed, and although this is a short and fast-moving book, it is sometimes a tough read, in more ways than one. Although Idha's lover obsesses her, her life worsens rather than improves after he disappears, and the story becomes ever-more bleak.

This is the sort of novel I would have liked to see on the Booker longlist. It's certainly 'readable', but it is also emotionally complex, and very specific to its setting. By which I don't just mean Delhi - although Kapoor's beautiful/brutal portrayal of the city is one of the highlights of her narrative - but the particular situation of being a young, unmarried, middle-class, college-educated, Hindu woman in India in the 2000s. It's like living a little slice of another person's life - another thing that makes it feel very memoir-esque. A Bad Character burns out quickly, but it burns bright, and as a result it is very memorable. Just like the affair itself, in fact.

Rating: 8/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre Breakfast with the Borgias (31 July 2014) by DBC Pierre

A young academic and expert on artificial intelligence, Ariel Panek, is marooned at a wildly eccentric English guesthouse when severe fog grounds flights. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Zeva is waiting in Amsterdam, where they are supposed to be attending a conference together. Desperate to get a message to Zeva, Ariel (quickly christened 'Harry Panic' by his fellow guests) ingratiates himself with a strange family named the Borders who seem to be near-permanent residents there. The more time he spends with them, the more he is fascinated by this odd collection of characters: an ageing matriarch, a delusional uncle, a self-harming teenage girl, a practically mute boy, and Olivia, a woman of his age who is prodigiously talented at the piano, and seems to be the only normal one of the lot. But the longer Ariel stays at the hotel, the more difficult he finds it to make a connection with the outside world, and soon he is drawn into a spider's web of mind games alongside the sinister Borders.

Breakfast with the Borgias is exactly the kind of thing I actually want from the Hammer series. While other books from this line have experimented with form and theme, the best of them - like Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss and The Quickening by Julie Myerson - combine horror and humour with a schlocky B-movie feel. This is not exactly a hugely original story, but it's an excellent blend of Pierre's idiosyncratic style and typically grotesque characters with a page-turning plot. While I had no investment in Ariel and Zeva's relationship at the beginning and thought I was going to find them annoying, Gretchen was so completely and utterly hateful that by the end I was cheering them on and, even though the general nature of the outcome was fairly obvious from the start, I still really wanted to know exactly what would happen in the end.

The final twist is a classic ghost-story move, and could easily be called predictable, but I think that would miss the point. Subtle this book is not; it's not supposed to be. Aforementioned 'twist' is, in fact, hinted at not only throughout the book but also in the blurb on the cover, so it's hard to believe any reader is actually supposed to be surprised about it. This is an entertaining book, not a meaningful one. It delivered what I wanted it to deliver, and while it can't be compared to Pierre's Lights Out in Wonderland, it's definitely an agreeable return to form after the dire Petit Mal. Also better than Joanna Briscoe's Touched, another Hammer novella I read directly before it, which took the ghost/horror story premise more seriously.

Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

I received advance review copies of A Bad Character and Breakfast with the Borgias from the publishers through NetGalley.

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