A RISING MAN by Abir Mukherjee

What a fabulous book “A Rising Man” is.

And what a prodigiously talented writer Mr. Mukherjee is. 

A murder mystery set in Calcutta in 1919, this is an absorbing page-turner from the very word go.

From the first moment you meet the narrator, Captain Sam Wyndham and his endearing deputy, Sergeant “Surrender Not” Banerjee, you know –  you just know – that this is a duo that was meant to be.  And that they will have many more adventures together.

Sam Wyndham arrives in Calcutta, emotionally drained after the horrors of World War 1.  He has seen such dreadful sights and experienced such loss, that his view of Calcutta, and India, and his fellow Brits is understandably jaundiced.  Sam is not a believer in the supremacy of the British in India, and he is a rare, compassionate man in a system that discourages such emotions, especially towards Indians.  

“There’s a special arrogance to be found in the Calcutta Englishman, something you don’t find in many other outposts of empire.  It may be born of familiarity.  After all, the English have been top dog in Bengal for a hundred and fifty years, and seemed to consider the natives, especially the Bengalis, as rather contemptible.

Sam doesn’t like Calcutta that much, nor does he buy into the whole colonial grandiloquence that has fashioned this city on the humid banks of a river.

“I set foot on the soil of India on the first of April, 1919.  All Fool’s Day. It seemed appropriate…

Pitching up in Calcutta for the first time without the assistance of drugs is not a pleasant experience.  Of course there’s the heat, the broiling, suffocating, relentless heat.  But that’s not the problem.  It’s the humidity that drives men mad…

Calcutta – we called it the City of Palaces.  Our Star in the East.  We’d built this city, erected mansions and monuments where previously had stood only jungle and thatch.  We’d paid our price in blood and now, we proclaimed, Calcutta was a British city.  Five minutes here would tell you it was no such thing.  But that didn’t mean it was Indian.

The truth was, Calcutta was unique.”

Calcutta is an integral part of this novel, both its geography as well as its social mores.

Take Dalhousie square, for example.  On his first visit to the iconic Writer’s Building, Sam passes Dalhousie Square with its fenced-off pool:

“Dalhousie was too big to be elegant.  At its centre sat a large, rectangular pool the colour of banana leaves.  Digby had mentioned that in the old days, the natives would use it for washing, swimming and religious purposes.  All that stopped after the mutiny of ’57.  Such things were no longer to be tolerated.  Now the pool stood empty, its bottle-green waters shimmering in the afternoon sun.  The natives – the ones we approved of, at any rate – now suited and booted in frock coats and buttoned-down collars, hurried around it…signs in English and Bengali warning of stiff penalties should they be tempted to revert to their base natures and go for a dip.”

No sooner has Sam arrived, than he is tasked with solving the murder of a British official.  The authorities want the murderer to be found as quickly as possible, mainly to show that the British cannot be trifled with, but Sam’s training as a Scotland Yard detective is somewhat at odds with the British agenda.

In “Surrender Not” Sam finds an intelligent, eloquent, impeccably spoken, well-educated assistant, and their relationship of trust and mutual respect is definitely at odds with the prevailing climate in Calcutta.

Surrender Not is an intriguing character, a perfect foil for Sam, who has to pick his way through the class and colour-ridden minefield that is colonial India.

There are moments when you, the reader, are embarrassed by the sheer crassness of the colonial Brit:

“Digby laughed. “you see what srt of people we’re dealing with here, Wyndham!  That’s the vanity of the Bengali for you.  Even the bloody coolies lie about their age!”

Banerjee squirmed.  “If I may, sir, I doubt vanity has much to do with it.  The fact is, the railways impose a policy of retirement at the age of fifty-eight.  Unfortunately, the pension provided to native Indians is generally too meagre for a family to live on.  By lowering their ages on the forms I beleive the men hope to work for a few years more and thus provide for their families just that little bit longer.”

Sam also has to pick his way through the tortuous relationship both the British and the Indians have with Anglo-Indians such as Annie Grant, a young lady who handles the sneering insults at her mixed race with great dignity.  She, of all people, has no illusions about the nature of colonial rule in India:

“I’m sorry”, she said…It’s just that I’ve seen it happen.  Nice middle-class chaps from the Shires, they come out here and the power and the privilege go to their heads.  All of a sudden they’re being waited on hand and foot and being dressed by a manservant.  They start to feel entitled.”

Along with the mystery of who has committed the two murders he is investigating, Sam gets a crash course in the current political climate in India, mainly through the interesting character of Benoy Sen, a patriot, an intellectual and exactly the kind of Indian to infuriate the colonial overlords, and – not surprisingly – interest Sam, even though he does get exasperated by him:

“This isn’t a political discussion,” I said. “Just answer the question.”

Sen laughed, thumping his hands down on the table.  “But it is, Captain!  How could it not be? You are a police officer,  I am an Indian.  You are a defender of a system that keeps my people in subjugation.  I am a man who seeks freedom.  The only type of discussion we could have is a political one.”

God, I hated politicals.  Give me a psychopath or a mass murderer any day.  Compared to a political, interrogating them was refreshingly straightforward.  They were generally all too eager to confess their crimes.”

“A Rising man” is a wonderful read.  A murder mystery, wrapped up in India a century ago, and introducing a detective duo that one hopes will return quickly to solve another crime.

Unstintingly recommended.  (And, by the way, neither Mr. Mukherjee nor his publisher, Vintage, know that I blog)

BLACK WATER LILIES by Michel Bussi

What a bewitchingly clever book Michel Bussi’s “Black Water Lilies” is, the original page turner if ever there was one, and a book that keeps you guessing right until the final sentence.

It is also a book that is virtually impossible to review without spoiling everything for those who still have this book to read.

A murder takes place in Giverny, the pretty French village that was home to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, and is now a pilgrimage site for tourists the world over, who converge on Monet’s house, his famous garden and its even more famous pond of water lilies.

At the beginning of the novel, our narrator gives us a quick lowdown on what is to follow :

“Three women lived in a village.

The first was mean, the second a liar, and the third an egotist…

…All three were quite different.  But they had something in common, a secret  All three dreamed of leaving.  Yes, of leaving Giverny…”

Giverny is an essential part of this brilliantly constructed murder mystery, its beauty both a charm and a curse.

We are privileged to see much of this pretty place in the warm summer mornings, almost at daybreak, when one of the oldest residents of the village walks her dog Neptune through the pre-tourist-rush deserted streets, and muses about the changes she has witnessed in Giverny over the years.  Our narrator is waspish, and doesn’t like what she sees:

“Having seen all the changes that have taken place in the village over the years, I sometimes have the feeling that Giverny has become a giant theme park.”

She rues the car parks and the tourist buses, the crowds, the wannabe painters, the Babel of languages and the constant traffic, all of which floods into Giverny every morning, stays for a noisy day and then departs in the evening, leaving the village it used to be.

“But I won’t lie to you.  For most of the day, Monet’s meadow is, in fact, a giant car park.  Four car parks, to be precise, clustered around a bitumen stem like a water lily made of tarmac.  I think I can afford to say this thing, at my age.  I have seen the landscape transform itself, year after year.  Today Monet’s countryside is just a commercial backdrop.”

Our narrator who walks with difficulty, and has only her friendly Alsatian Neptune for company, walks virtually unnoticed though the streets of the village where she was born and has lived all her life. She accepts that as an old lady, in black, her head covered with a headscarf, she is largely invisible to the tourists who flock to Giverny every day.  Old age and loneliness are one of the leitmotivs in her narration.  She observes the world around her with a keen eye, whilst realising that the world largely ignores her very presence:

“Go and stand on a street corner, any corner, a Parisian boulevard, in the square by a village church, wherever you like…You turn to gaze at a girl’s bare navel, you push your way past the senior executive in a hurry, or the gang of young people filling the pavement, you glance at the buggy, the baby in it and the mother behind it.  But an old man or woman…They are invisible.  Precisely because they pass so slowly that they are almost part of the decor, like a tree or a street light.  If you don’t beleive me, just try it.  You’ll see.”

The village school teacher, the beautiful Stéphanie Dupain, is one of the 3 women mentioned by the narrator in the opening moments of the book.  Stéphanie is much loved by her young pupils, and she quickly captivates the newly arrived Police Inspector Laurenç Sérénac.  He knows that she is married, and that her husband might be a suspect in the murder he is investigating and yet, despite professional misgivings, he is drawn to her.  He admires her beauty although, in a telling moment infused with art, he wonders about her:

“As the teacher leans over and turns away slightly, the ray of sunlight shining through the window reflects off the white paper and illuminates her face, a reading woman bathed in a halo of light that is suggestive of Fragonard, Degas, Vermeer,  For just a moment, Sérénac is touched by a strange idea, an impression: not one of the young woman’s gestures is spontaneous; the grace of each movement is too perfect, calculated, studied. She is posing for him…”

The third woman mentioned is a child, the prodigiously talented Fanette, who has a gift and a talent for painting that she doesn’t fully understand, but that is so strong it governs her young life.  Against the wishes of her mother, and despite the petty playground jealousies of her school friends, Fanette knows one thing.  She has to paint.  And, like the narrator and Stéphanie, Fanette wants to leave the gilded cage that is Giverny.

Stéphanie compares living in Giverny to living in a painting:

“…the décor is frozen.  Petrified.  You’re not allowed to redecorate any of the houses in a different way, repaint a wall, pick so much as a single flower.  There are laws forbidding it.  We live in a painting here.  We’re walled in…”

The plot of this novel is dazzlingly clever, but I absolutely cannot share it with you here.  If you haven’t yet read the book, there is no way I’m going to spoil one single moment of it for you.

The extent of M. Bussi’s cleverness only reveals itself right at the end of the book, and then you sit there, blinking at the brilliance, and re-thinking the storyline, and suddenly realising how all the parts fit together even more superbly than you had realised.

Originally published in French, in 2011, Shaun Whiteside has done a brilliant job of translating it into English.

The English version was published in 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

The paperback sells for £7.99 in the UK & for Rs 399 in India.

If you haven’t already read this book, and now wish to do so, it couldn’t be easier.  Here are two links for you – and you don’t need guiding through the online ordering process, now, do you?

THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

And, rather puzzlingly, what an extraordinarily uneven book it is too.

I dislike crisiticising someone’s writing, because it is such an intensely personal thing, but this excellent book is so uneven in its writing that it could almost have been written by two people – one of them fluent and funny and spot-on descriptive, and the other making silly, sloppy grammatical mistakes.

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“All-powerful, all-pervasive sameness this, it drags me in even on my day off…”

See what I mean?

From poor grammar to stunning prose in just a few lines.

I think tighter editing might have done the trick, for I do not for a moment believe that a writer of the obvious calibre of Mr. Yadav would say things like ” I pretend not hearing her” or “a couple of boys touching twenties”.

For a while, I wondered whether the grammatical mistakes were not deliberate, putting poor English into the mouths of his Hindi speaking politicians.

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

Right, now that’s off my chest, let me rave about a great contemporary Indian novel.

I have mentioned in other reviews, that although the circumstances of reading a novel should not necessarily influence one’s appreciation of the writing, the fact still remains that very often they do.

And so, reading a book like this, living in North India as I do, and with non-stop talk and coverage of  the political shenanigans in the tumultuous, populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in a few weeks – well, Mr. Yadav has painted us a vivid, all too imaginable scenario.  Corruption, internecine fighting, rent-a-crowd, all the elements of North Indian politics are brilliantly reflected in this novel.

The struggle for the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the dream of eventually becoming Prime Minister, are the guiding forces of Dada’s life, and his entourage of feckless family, hangers-on, corrupt cops, venal politicians…oh, it is all too familiar and therefore totally believable.

The noise and chaos and dirt and scruffiness that characterises so much of small town north India is perfectly described. You can hear the incessant noise from that traffic jam – actually, sitting in Delhi as I write this, I really CAN hear the racket from the traffic outside, but you take my meaning.

Mr. Yadav writes powerfully and brings his cast of characters to life, from the interesting jeera packer himself with his lovely wife Jyoti, to the Pathan who dreams of riding off into the sunset on his Bullet, to the about-to-retire policeman, terrified of life outside the toadying, protective bubble of official cars and drivers and the saluting deference which he has come to love.

This is a fast-paced, good read, and never for once does it tip over into clichés.  This is India “warts and all” and the ending is a cracker.

Heartlly recommended.

Excitingly, this is a brand new book, published in 2017 and since the year is just a week old, you don’t get much more contemporary than this.

Published by the energetic Fingreprint! (& I do so love that ! in their name)

LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent

Having just put down Liz Nugent’s fabulous “Unravelling Oliver” I immediately opened “Lying in Wait.” And this amazingly talented writer’s second novel is, possibly, even more stunning than her début book.

What a writer.

How exciting it is to discover such talent, even though everyone else clearly knew about Ms Nugent from the outset.

The story of “Lying in Wait” is, as in her fist novel, told from the points of view of the various characters, in their voice and from their own unique perspective, and this time this stylistic device works seamlessly.

The story begins in 1980 and ends in 2016, though this is, essentially, a novel of the 1980s, with spot-on references to the music and TV shows of the days.  There is even one delicious reference to shoulder pads.

“Lying in Wait” opens with a bang, literally, from the first sentence:

“My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.”

And with that opening sentence, we are led into a world of lies, of cover ups, manipulation, truths, all in an ever-tightening web of intrigue and suspense.

This is such a gripping novel that I raced through it way too quickly, gobbling up the pages to see how this chilling, mesmerising, exciting thriller would end.

We inhabit the claustrophobic world of Avalon, a beautiful gracious home which plays such an important role in the novel. Avalon is the magnet which keeps Lydia living there, declining the chance to study ballet in London, refusing ever to go away on holiday, hardly venturing out into Dublin, such is her love for her childhood home.

Lydia, her husband Andrew and their only child Laurence live a strange, tense existence in this beautiful home which dominates their lives.

The repercussions of that opening line, in which Annie Doyle is killed, are the structure of this book, as we see how the killers handle the crime, how Annie’s family reacts, and how the ripple effects of this one single shocking event spread ever outwards, over the decades.

This is an absolutely riveting thriller, and confirms Liz Nugent as a huge talent.

Thoroughly, enthusiastically, totally recommended.

After reading both of Ms Nugent’s novels in a week, I’m a huge fan.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this (& how nice would that be!), it couldn’t be easier. Here you go:

UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent

How is it possible that this stunning novel eluded me for 2 years?

What a read.

I sat up in the misty Himalayas, wrapped in a duvet against the damp chill, and read and read and read and didn’t go exploring.  Just gobbled up this dark, gripping, clever book.

The book opens with a bang:

“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

And from that sentence on, we start unravelling the man behind the public persona of handsome, urbane, successful Oliver Ryan.

The format of the book, telling the story mainly in flashback, and always from a different person’s perspective, is initially a little unsettling.  For the first few chapters, until the characters all settled into place, I had to keep double checking who was now speaking, but after a while, as the story proceeds, the cleverness (and the consummate skill) of hearing all these different voices, from different time frames, and seeing different perspectives and views add to the mystery.

“Unravelling Oliver” is a psychological thriller of note.

Oliver is a man who has just beaten his wife into a coma in the opening moments of the book.  He is a man with many secrets.  And yet, such is the skill of Ms Nugent’s spare prose, that there are moments when we feel genuinely sorry for this manipulative man.

For make no mistake, Oliver manipulates people shamelessly, from his earliest days of getting to know women in his student days in early 1970s Dublin:

“I have learned over the years how to charm them.  It’s not too hard if you are handsome and can appear to be clever with a dry wit. Then, gradually, begin to take an interest, as if she is a specimen in a laboratory.  Poke her a bit with a long stick while keeping your distance.  Ignore her for long periods to see how she reacts and then give her a good shake.  It almost always works.”

There are so many layers to the story, and as you the reader, peel back each new layer, the story gets progressively deeper and more mysterious.  With hindsight, you realise that echoes and precursors of the truth behind Oliver are scattered throughout the book.

Here, for example, where Véronique talks about her father, a man who suffered much at the hands of the Gestapo:

“He had told nobody and, despite his heroics, he felt nothing but shame.  I think it an honourable thing not to visit your horror upon those that you love, but I suspect that the pain of keeping it inside must also cause a lesion to the soul.”

With hindsight, we realise that these words – well, some of them – could apply equally to Oliver.  Oliver is not heroic, but he does have secrets that he will not and cannot share.

This is a story with dark tragedy at its centre, but yet there are moments of pure beauty, too.

When you read this toddler’s reactions to a story being told to him, it is such a joyous vignette:

“As Monsieur began to tell the story, I watched the boy’s face as he perched on his papi’s knee.  He was transfixed by the tale of a happy young prince of a fantastical land and would exclaim in the middle of the telling, would hide his eyes at the arrival of the bad witch, and clap his hands in excitement at our hero’s escape in the end.”

Books and stories, and the telling of stories, and the not telling of stories, are all part of the fabric of this clever book.  There are twists and turns right up until the closing paragraph.

Consummate story-telling.

Ireland per se isn’t a character as such in the book, but the social situation and the mores of 1970s Dublin, are a leitmotiv running through the book, influencing the decisions and behaviour of the characters.

For example, the parlous state of Irish food in the 1970s comes in for gentle criticism, when Michael spends a summer in France:

“Ireland in those days was a gastronomic wilderness.  Parsley sauce was considered the height of sophistication.  Here, I learned that boiling was not the only way to teat a vegetable…and that garlic existed.”

A great read.  A gripping story.  Totally recommended.

If you would like to buy the book after reading this review, here you go.

Couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link, and yes, of course, you know the rest…

PENUMBRA by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Natural cynic that I am, when I read on a book cover a comment like “Make sure you have three clear hours when you pick this book up, because you won’t stop reading till you’ve finished it”, I’m ashamed to say that my first reaction is to mutter, “Yeah right” or something to that effect.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Penumbra” is totally un-put-down-able and I have just spent the last 2 hours, when I should’ve been writing an overdue article, absolutely devouring the book.

And, for the record, totally not guessing whodunit.

So, yes, indeed.  Make sure you have a nice clear afternoon, and settle down and enjoy a cracking murder mystery.

The book is set initially in Calcutta, and then in rural West Bengal, in an almost Agatha Christie-like setting.

A house party gathered for a celebration.

A murder.

Everyone trapped in the house together, isolated by a storm of almost Biblical proportions that brings down the phone lines, cause the power to flicker, makes the roads undrive-able…

At one point in the book I got too clever by half and thought I’d figured it all out.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Again.

I hadn’t a clue, right until the very end.

(And don’t worry, there are no plot-spoilers here.  Wouldn’t do that to you.)

The novel is told in the first person, through the mouth of Prakash Roy, a freelance journalist – and that, possibly, is the only v-e-r-y slight quibble I have with the author.  Prakash’s being a journalist is mentioned throughout the book, but he doesn’t seem to have much investigative get-up-and-go, and is content, rather, to serve as the foil to other people’s deductions.

But it doesn’t detract from him as a character at all  –  which is why I said it was a mere quibble.

Good read.

Good plot.

Thoroughly recommended.

If you would like to buy the book –  and it’s a great read – it couldn’t be easier.

Just click on one of the links below, & you’ll be on your way.

I was sent this book to review by the publishers, Fingerprint!

How to kill a billionaire by Rajesh Talwar

Before we start –  cards on the table time.

I was sent “How to kill a billionaire” by Juggernaut, to test and review their new app for reading on your smartphone.  Click here to read my review in my other blog.

But boy oh boy, did ever I make a good choice when I picked this title out from a list Juggernaut kindly gave me to chose from (ouch – that’s a pretty ugly sentence).

“How to kill a billionaire” is an absolute cracker of a read, and I loved it from start to finish – I didn’t work one whole afternoon, ignoring my computer and a pile of editing, in order to finish this gripping book.

And what a clever book it is too.  You are told the facts of the crime almost at the outset, but it is the unravelling of the where’s and why’s and how’s that grips you.

I am (I like to flatter myself) by and large a nice person, so there won’t be any spoilers here.  Pukka.

But since the blurb says, upfront “When a billionaire’s son goes missing after a young girl commits suicide…”, you know from the outset that it’s going to be a book about dissecting a crime and its repercussions.  And that is as far as I’m going to go, otherwise I really will spoil the book for you.

The setting is “Thirty Thousand Courts” in Delhi, and it took me a page or two (e-page, I suppose one should call them) to twig.

Thirty Thousand Courts = Tis Hazari.  (Yeah, I’m quick like that.)

The descriptions of the cramped, squalid offices where so much of Delhi’s legal work is done are excellent and I learned some legal odds and ends along the way :

img_7458

Did not know cross examination was so crucial.

Mr. Talwar writes well and cleverly, and through the voice of his main protagonist, we get a glimpse of life in the cramped, seedy, corrupt-but-functioning world of Thirty Thousand Courts:

img_7452

I also learned a little more about Indian food –  how have I never eaten a “fain”, in all my years in India?

img_7455

As the story unfolds, over tea and “fain” and sometimes kebabs and whisky, the lawyer talks to Lord Patel – and to we, the reader – explaining what happened, and no, don’t worry, I am not going to tell you & spoil what is a truly great read.

100% recommended for both Indian and overseas readers.  Since Lord Patel, to whom the narrator directs his story, is a foreign based Indian, who has supposedly lost touch with some of the ground realities of living in India, the narrator often explains things to him – a boon for readers who may not know India intimately.

Click here to read an interesting Q&A with the author.

To read this gripping novel, first download the Juggernaut app onto your smartphone if you don’t already have it, then download the book.