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In France she discovers a mysterious chain of events: Chloe's (male) fiance apparently had an Indian wife named Lana who seems to have gone crazy and run away from him, possibly to become a lesbian. Using a novel manuscript Lana left behind that may or may not be autobiographical, Jaya investigates what exactly happened to Lana and who Lana was. Meanwhile, an unexpected crush on a gay man named Ishmael forces Jaya out of her comfort zone and she reexamines everything she knows about sexuality and gender.
I have a tendency to remember books I buy in shorthand, and what I remembered about this one was "Indian-Irish lesbians and political activism". The political activist part is certainly relevant, but not as much as I thought. This book is mostly about the mystery of what happened to Lana and Jaya figuring herself out. It's a massive tangle of plot threads, every one of which is intriguing. I love how Samuel explores gender identity and the struggle to define oneself, especially when one is entangled by varieties of repression and self hate.
Jaya's biphobia turned me off at first but by the end I could understand it. She was not only hurt by her past with bisexual women but by the way she already felt excluded from Irish lesbian culture in some ways by her race. Speaking of which, I loved how Jaya and Lana had very different experiences of being ethnically Indian in a European cultural setting--Lana being connected more to Indian culture where Jaya, half-Indian and raised by a white mother, is more cut off. Lana in general is a fascinating character, though for a long time you only see her through her writing and not in person.
And on the subject of Lana's novel, I loved how you have to sift through it to figure out what the truth of Lana's past is; it's not as straightforward as it seems. And Jaya falling for Lana through her writing makes sense: not only is Lana in her writing very intimate and the kind of person Jaya would fall for, but it's natural that Jaya as a writer would fall for someone in this way.
The one thing I didn't like was that Jaya's love for Ishmael often feels more informed than naturally built. However, Ishmael's character is completely fascinating, so while I didn't always feel his chemistry with Jaya, I didn't particularly mind either. And he grows more and more interesting as the novel goes on.
Probably I'll have to reread to get all the nuances. VERY GOOD BOOK. Recommended for the gender/sexuality play and for the twistiest plot I've read in quite a while.
The overarching themes of identity, love, trust and belonging weave together as we move backwards and forwards between the life of an Indian couple coming to terms with their arranged marriage in small-town Ireland and the current incarnation of the various players with whom their lives have become intertwined. Overlaid on all of that is the complex undertone of prejudice… patriarchal, racial, homophobic, biphobic; external and obvious or internalised and just as damaging.
R J Samuel is an excellent storyteller and accomplished writer who somehow manages to lead the reader from A to B with side tours to P, X and J, while simultaneously challenging us to reconsider our own prejudices. This isn't a difficult read in the sense of being unpleasant in any way, but the very complexity of the characters’ lives, combined with issues such as domestic abuse, arranged marriages and mental health, make it a challenging read in that it challenges us to reconsider our own prejudice.
Like all really good literature this book will make you think. It will entertain, inform and enlighten the majority of us who have never experienced the life of a foreigner with a different skin colour in an extremely white and parochial community, or the concept of total sacrifice for the family, and while many of us have suffered homophobia, few have grown up in a society where the whole culture believes it is an abomination. The personal choices facing many of these characters will strike a chord; we are drawn in, caught up and immersed in their lives, and can't help but want to save them, sort them out, and see them live the "happy ever after" they deserve.
Each of R J’s books shows her development as a master craftswoman. The prose is delightful, the characters complex, the plot twisted into knots and the settings are beautifully described. Add onto all that a deep and meaningful observation of humanity and a clever portrayal of the impact of multiple prejudices and our very personal reactions to them and you have an excellent and thought provoking novel.
This is one book I will find the time to reread, it will take at least 2 visits to really see the subtle interplay of personalities and fully appreciate the complex personal journeys that RJ has woven into this colourful tale.
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