Three misfits set out on a journey across America, a journey of evolution, and are changed forever.
Pival Sengupta, a newly widowed Indian woman, has booked a trip to America. Her servants are outraged! A woman just does not do this alone. But Pival is not going to see the sights of America. Instead, she is hoping to find her son whom her husband has told her is dead. After moving to America, Rahi revealed to his father Ram that he was gay and was immediately disowned. Then one night Ram took a call and told Pival it was from their son's lover in America and that Rahi had died. On her trip to America she wants to see what Rahi had possibly seen in America, perhaps walk where he walked before he died. But did he die? She wonders if her husband lied to her. She has had her doubts since the death was so sudden and there was no body returned to India. She is determined to find out the truth.
The characters in this story are each unique and all are engaging. From Mrs. Sengupta who is naïve about so much but determined in her mission, to Mr. Munshi, the hard-working Bangladeshi tour company owner who tries to pass himself off as Indian. The description of him that quickly comes to mind is a "snake oil salesman". One has to wonder how his business remains open given his naivety. Pival's guide is Satya who has only been in the US for a year and never outside New York City. He is sweet, extremely naïve, and always ravenously hungry. For reasons of modesty, Pival needs a female companion so Mr. Munshi hires Rebecca, an aspiring actress. This two-week tour being a companion sounds like a working vacation to her so she is thrilled to get the job.
As Pival, Rebecca, and Satya make their way across the country they are challenged by their cultural and generational differences. But they begin to evolve in their own self-growth and learn to see the world through someone else's eyes. They learn to appreciate the qualities the others have to offer. Barriers come down, animosities are forgotten, and true bonds are formed. There is humor, heartbreak, forgiveness, and acceptance. This story isn't about where they travel but rather the voyage itself.
As a Jew it was difficult to see the animosity and the radicalization against them even though their problems were imposed by Arab nations. This resulted in somewhat of a mental block for me.
On the other hand it humanized these people. We live in the thought that Palestinians are brought up on the hatred of Jews. Other than the radicalization of two characters these people were portrayed as normal people who just want to live their lives like everyone else. From that point in the book on, I didn't concentrate on individual characters. I just read the book looking at the whole picture. I see this book as an important read and also a great book for book clubs to discuss. I will definitely read this book again and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it.
Empathy seems to have taken a bit of a hit recently. There's rarely a week when blatant hate or some form of intolerance isn't at the forefront of the news; and there can be few of us who haven't felt the need to disconnect from the media at times unable to take anymore. It would seem we could do with more empathy in our lives. With this in mind, here are six books for adults that have helped me see empathy and its importance. Books can't solve everything but perhaps reading can be one kind of spark to creating more kindness in our world.
Ondaatje is my favorite author, so a new novel by him is always something I'm on the lookout for. What makes Ondaatje my favorite isn't always the stories he tells, but how he tells them. In fact, sometimes Ondaatje can be confusing in his story telling, but even when things don't make perfect sense, his prose is always so exquisite that it doesn't matter. Goodreads also said about this book "In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself at once both shadowed and luminous Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire." Yeah 'luminous' is a very good word for what Ondaatje gives us, and he does succeed in giving it to us every time.
Rather than continue to be effusive about how Ondaatje writes (and you know I could go on endlessly), I think I should concentrate on the story, which is told mostly from the narrator's point of view, that being Nathaniel. I should note that in this book, Ondaatje moves between first and third person, where you get the feeling that Nathaniel is also narrating the third person sections, while at the same time, taking an omnipresent viewpoint. I know that doesn't sound like it makes any sense, but if you think of it as the 'imagination' part noted above from the Goodreads blurb, I think you'll understand what I mean here. My thinking is that Ondaatje needed the first-person parts to draw the reader in, and make them sympathetic to Nathaniel, but that viewpoint doesn't allow for the wider picture of things that happened beyond Nathaniel's own experiences; to include those events, he allows Nathaniel to imagine them from a distance, in both time and through piecing together clues he finds.
What this does is give us a very layered story, wherein Ondaatje starts with Nathaniel as a young teenager, and builds on this time in a mostly chronological order. Ondaatje then moves to Nathaniel as a young man, and this is where he introduces the third person/imagination sections of the story. These passages help Nathaniel fill in the blanks of his own life, but more importantly, he also learns more about his mother's life, and what really happened to her when she disappeared from his life. All the other characters seem to dance on the sidelines of Nathaniel's life, until their presence is necessary to add something to the story, and only then they can take center stage for a time. I found this fascinating in how it seemed to say that although you might sometimes feel that certain people have no significant impact on your life, in fact, there are no real minor characters, you just don't always understand their importance at the time. However, I don't think that was the main point of this book, although for me it was a substantial part. If I had to pinpoint what I think Ondaatje is saying here, I'd say that we must look at the title of the book and attempt to understand its significance. For those who read this book the word "warlight" only appears near the end of the novel when Ondaatje talks about how the British helped barges find their way on the Thames when they transported munitions during the war. What this says to me is that this story is more about Nathanial finding his way, than who or what was helping or hindering him along his path. If that means it is a "coming of age" story, then so be it, and I can't think of one more beautifully written than this. On the other hand, there was one phrase that Ondaatje used which I think may be even more significant in understanding what this book is about, and that's the one I used as the title of this review the consequences of peace. That simple combination of words is so powerful and evocative for me, that I'm sure I'll be thinking about it for a very long time, if only because it is an impeccable example of how amazing a writer Ondaatje proves to be, time and again.
That only leaves the question if this book has overtaken "The English Patient" and "The Cat's Table" as my favorite of Ondaatje's works, and I must be honest and say no those two are still my favorites. However, if until now I ranked "Anil's Ghost" as just below those two, I believe that this book has edged that novel out, but only by a just a whisper.
And that is the essence of this tale. What is our heritage? Is it the place of our birth, where we live NOW, where we lived before, how do we define ourselves? Alyan describes loss and heartache in beautiful prose. Her characters live and breathe. The sense of place is palpable. Although this tale is specifically Palestinian, the rootlessness of the refugee is timeless and placeless.
You will need the family tree at the beginning of the book to keep the generations straight. The time and place notations at the beginning of each chapter help the reader keep track of the family's migrations and the time frame of the various wars and tragedies from just before the 6 Day War through the current Middle East uprisings.
Lots for book groups to discuss here.