Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Between the Assasinations by Aravind Adiga

[If that's the kind of thing that matters to you, I read this as an audiobook.]

Sometimes it's good to get outside your reading comfort zone, especially in the realm of fiction. I know there are some folks who think that the best reading comes from reading a particular type of literature only, because you can read almost everything that comes out.

I don't work like that, as a casual glance at my reviews here or on Panel Patter can show you. I prefer to read whatever strikes my fancy, and try as many new things as I can. It doesn't always work, but hey, it's worth a shot.

That brings me to this book, Between the Assassinations, a collection of short stories set in a darker side of India that most would rather not touch. There are lower-caste people, pimps, deranged priests, corrupt cops, and desperate men and women just looking for a way to survive in a world that grows crueler by the minute. These are their stories, and they aren't pretty or polite.

Adiga pulls no punches when it comes to depicting life in his fictional town. There is no attempt to sugarcoat the baldfaced lies, deception, and general despair that haunts just about every character we meet in these chapters. This is both a blessing and a curse: Adiga's characters are refreshingly honest, but most are so unlikable that after awhile, it's hard to want to keep spending time with them.

That was my major issue with Between the Assassinations. I read books for their characters, and so many of his were so unlikable, it made the book drag in places for me. I was moved almost to tears when a little girl must risk the dangers of the street to get her drugged out father his fix. A rogue bookseller, who is tortured for the Satanic Verses, captured my heart. I understood the despair of the newsman who learns that his whole life has been a lie. Even the man who tries to get ahead in life but lets his lust get the better of him is a person who you want to root for, at least for a time.

But so many of the others are just so rotten, like the elderly priest who cannot stand his students trying to live out their impulses, or the punk rich kid who decides to be a terrorist. Their stories felt like they took forever, and I couldn't wait to be rid of them. I had less strong feelings about the boy who opts for a fast life and dies for it or the old communist who opts to turn to lechery when the party's faith leaves him, but they, too, were just not all that compelling to me.

It's not just that they were horrible people. I can enjoy a book about a horrible person just fine. My issue is that they only had one common feature--misery. That's an overwhelming theme of this book, but when you apply it to an unlikable protagonist, the story fails to grab me.

This is not to say that Adiga is not a good writer. His prose is bleak, to be sure, but that's the point. His dialog felt natural for these characters, whether I like them or not. I have a small knowledge of India, but not enough to picture this world on my own. Adiga does a great job of painting the setting, without getting too wordy. This book has an amazing shared universe, and I give Adiga a lot of credit for putting that together.

In some ways, Between the Assassinations reminded me of the noir books I read earlier this year. Like those books, there are ups and downs in here, and that may be enough for some folks to skip this one. I can't say that I'd recommend it, but if you are looking to try something different, and are okay with having a book that's likely to dampen your mood after you read it, this one is worth a look. If you do, I'd love to know what you think.

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