Tuesday, October 28, 2014

#76 - "A House for Mr. Biswas" by V.S. Naipaul

It is done. #76 on the list, A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul. By no means the longest book on the list, but I believe 2nd only to Lord of the Rings in how long it took me to read, at nearly four months.

This was a bit of a different one for me; I enjoyed reading it, the entire time in fact, but when I put it down I had little to no motivation to pick it up again. Reminds me of Possession. Looking back on the book, this actually makes sense; the writing was wonderful, with complex characters, interesting settings, and vivid descriptions. There was just one thing missing, a plot. It didn't seem to be a book I needed to pick up on a regular basis, as I wasn't really concerned with what was going to happen.

Mohun Biswas is born into a poor, Indian family in Trinidad, sometime in the early part of the 20th century. His birth is looked upon as a stroke of bad luck, as he is born with an extra finger, and comes out feet first. And for the following 500 or so pages, it seems that prophecy turns out to be true. Mr. Biswas lives a life without many successes.

His troubles start when he hides from his parents, fearing harsh punishment. Mr. Biswas' father, fearing his sun has drowned, dives into a lake to find him, only to drown himself. And it goes downhill from there. He is pulled out of school to begin a career, but fails at nearly everything he does. Eventually, through cowardice, he becomes engaged to Shama Tulsi, daughter of a shop owning family; a family that would come to dominate him for the rest of his life.

After several career changes, Mr. Biswas, now father of several children, manages to secure a job as a journalist, despite having little to no education, and no experience. In perhaps his only bit of luck, he turns that into a Government job for a time.

All the while, Mr. Biswas dreams of owning a house, and being able to free himself of his overbearing in-laws. He plods through life, saving what little money he can, until eventually he is able to buy his dream house, which really means any house. Shortly after moving in, Mr. Biswas dies, at the age of 46, and is soon forgotten by everybody he ever met, including his family.

I can't really paint it any other way, it is that bleak. But that doesn't make it bad, in fact it might do the opposite. It just never really moves toward any peak, it is just a recapping of a fairly miserable existence. Added to that is the fact that Mr. Biswas isn't really a very nice or likable person, making it pretty difficult for me the reader, to find any sympathy for him or his plight.

But it was a well written book, and reading it was usually a pleasure. This was a book I felt I could get lost in, the world of inter-war Trinidad and the often depressing circumstances in which Mr. Biswas lived. I feel I would be able to perfectly recreate that world from memory if I were say, making a movie of this book. This was a similar feeling I had after reading Brideshead Revisited, which also left me with vivid, detailed ideas of where and when the book took place. With Brideshead though, the story seemed to move somewhere, where as this book often just plowed along with no real purpose. Which I suppose was exactly like Mr. Biswas' life.

Keeping that in mind, I can't fault this book at all; I did enjoy it. I would never describe it as a page turner however. And that is something I think I enjoy about reading the books from this list, as I have been introduced to great writing so many times in books that I would never pick up otherwise, and even if I did pick up, I probably wouldn't have finished.

In the words of another reviewer, I'd have to rate this book quite highly, but do so though gritted teeth.

My next book is The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which should be about the 50th book I didn't really know anything about before starting it.

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