This week I have a review in the Sunday Oregonian (January 15th) for Thrity Umrigar's novel, The World We Found.
Some novels seduce you like a warm bath. With the first pages you find yourself fully immersed in the story, care deeply about the characters and are lulled by the clarity of the writing. Other novels are a bit more like grumpy uncles. They take some warming up to, some puzzling out before you find yourself looking forward to spending a rewarding and satisfying evening with them.
Such is the case with Thrity Umrigar's new book, "The World We Found." The novel tells the story of an enduring friendship between four women, Armaiti, Laleh, Kavita and Nishta, deeply devoted to one another during their tumultuous college years in 1970s Bombay, a time of political and social unrest. The now middle-aged foursome has drifted apart over the years because of life choices that set them on different paths -- geographic, religious and economic. The novel brings the four women together again with the devastating news of Armaiti's failing health, an inoperable brain tumor. Armaiti's desire to reunite with her friends, with the passion and vigor that commanded their young lives, sets loose, in each of the women, regrets, feelings of guilt and loss, memories and desires.
Umrigar's novel is both political and deeply personal. She is masterly at exploring the large societal tension of modern-day India through the lens of each woman's life. One must come to terms with her sexuality, another must admit to herself her collusion in the cage her fundamentalist husband has placed her in, another must reconcile her comfortable bourgeoisie lifestyle with the ideals of her youth, and, of course, Armaiti must ultimately accept her own death.
The passages that tell of Armaiti's demise are Umrigar at her best. As Armaiti loses control of her body to the brain tumor, she both rails against and accepts what is happening to her. She is equal parts angry and mystified. Mostly she is shown in nature, in her garden, at the ocean. She is wed to the tactile experiences of her diminishing life, the feel of her daughter's hands, the weightlessness of a pair of dead cardinals she finds and then buries in her yard. At times the writing dips toward sentimentality, as with the dead birds in the hands of the dying woman, but we can forgive Umrigar those moments when she also writes gimlet-eyed passages like this scene when Armaiti begins to lose her vision:
"Armaiti looked away to face the ocean again, and as she did, she felt something come loose inside her head. That's how she remembered the feeling later, as if a mechanical part, a knob, say, had come loose inside her head and had caused instant dizziness and blurriness of vision. The world around her, so sharp just a second ago, disappeared and became a fuzzy image cast by an old, creaking projector. Her own feet as she sat on the sand were out of focus. The ocean lost its distinctive shape and form, gave up the individuality of each wave to became a diffused, amorphous, gray-blue mass."
There is nothing sentimental in this description, just a bald stripping away, and for that we should be grateful. We are allowed to feel our own sadness at the devastating loss, rather than having the emotion prescribed to us through sentimentality or overly dramatic action.
Where the writing sometimes feels less true is in the dialogue. Umrigar often uses chunks of dialogue to pass along information to her reader, and it seems unnatural to the speaker. In writing workshops this awkward, sometimes-stilted dialogue is known as the info-dump. Ultimately things even out, we do get to know and care about the characters, and dialogue that seemed like pop beads awkwardly strung together becomes smooth as a string of pearls.
Umrigar, an Indian American who teaches at Case Western Reserve University, is a generous writer. Her compassionate and judgment-free descriptions of the sometimes-odious behavior of her characters or the occasional moment of grace make her people feel complicated and real. As the four women move toward reunion, their broken spirits, prickly personalities, unfortunate choices and generous hearts are explored. Umrigar resists tying things up for us. There are questions left unanswered and difficulties ahead for these characters, which feels right and honest. At the end, one character reflects, "I am here, she thinks. We are here. We are all here." It is a fitting close for a novel about enduring friendship and the power of love to change lives.
See the review and other great content from the Oregonian here: