A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
Set in India in the 70s and 80s, this is the story of two tailors who according to their caste should be tanners, their unlikely friend the college student, and his land lady, plus assorted colourful minor characters. This is a very long novel in part because it delves into the history of almost every character, which allows the reader the chance to empathise with people at varying levels of the caste and economic systems. The idea of balance is key to the narrative and manifests in different ways: how the caste system is all about balance (so leaving your caste disrupts the universe), but how that universal balance must be weighed against the balance of the human heart – how do you keep hope from being overwhelmed by despair especially if you’re down the bottom? And if the scales of justice never tip in your favour what other means are available? I’ve read lots about patronage cultures, and they’ve always struck me as particularly susceptible to abuse. Of course, that analysis just betrays my own cultural background, so in this novel I loved seeing the benefits of patronage cultures, and how they provide stability and protection for otherwise vulnerable people. I thought this novel would be good for me in an ‘eat your vegetables’ kind of way but I found it masterful and riveting. It’s recalled for me To Kill a Mockingbird in the sophistication and simplicity of the writing, and the inevitability of the injustice that I as the reader desperately wanted to resist.
As You Wish, Cary Elwes
My sisters and I used to watch ‘The Princess Bride’ whenever we went to visit some friends of my parents – they had it on VHS which is how the movie became popular, having had a pretty average run in cinemas. We just called it ‘the as you wish movie’ but it was a favourite from the moment we saw it. As I’ve grown older I’ve seen more of the layers to it – it’s not just a fairytale but also a gentle parody of fairytale, but one that’s still, you know, a fairy tale! This is a behind-the-scenes book about making the movie which has become so beloved and continues to amass fans. Cary Elwes wrote it with an actual writer which helps its readability, and that’s excellent because you wouldn’t want material like this to be ruined – it’s chockers full of funny stories about filming as well as insights into how a movie is made. Also includes asides from the other stars, director, producers and writer.
Mullumbimby, Melissa Luschenko
This is a book about identity, and how you bring the disparate parts of yourself together. Single mum, friend, girlfriend, employee, land-owner, sister and horse-lover are some of the competing interests for Jo. She’s also a Bundjalung woman, and that is complex in and of itself. She can’t trace her family background far enough back to justify a Native Title claim, as some others can, and I had not fully realised before reading this book how demeaning applying for Native Title can be to some Aboriginal people, nor how it can disrupt their politics. Jo feels a strong connection to her land, which is why she’s so proud to own a property, and yet, it’s a farm. She knows something of her culture and language but feels keenly gaps in her knowledge, especially as she finds herself both at home and spooked by some of the spiritual aspects of country, and wishing for elders who might help her to interpret and process them. This was a fascinating cross-cultural read for me.
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
When Lily runs away from her abusive father to find out more about her dead mother, she’s joined by their Negro maid Rosaleen and they wind up at a honey farm run by three Negro spinsters. The first half of the story is pretty depressing and I considered leaving it there but I persevered and it does end on a higher note than it started. The white girl guided by ‘The Help’ is a well worn trope, as is the magical Negro, here embodied by the three sisters. However, one interesting aspect of this novel is the spirituality of the three sisters as it’s built around a cult of Mary mixed together with a very earthy reverence of bees and honey.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.