Welcome to today’s stop on the mega blog tour celebrating the authors on the longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2020. I’m delighted to bring you my review of one of the longlisted books – The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. My thanks to Martina at Midas PR for inviting me to take part in the tour and for my review copy.
Look out for the announcement of the shortlist on 7th April. Ensure you don’t miss a thing by following the hashtag #SUDTP20 on Twitter.
If you missed it, you can also read my review here of another of the longlisted books, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
About the Dylan Thomas Prize
Launched in 2006, the annual Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prizeis one of the most prestigious awards for young writers, aimed at encouraging raw creative talent worldwide. It celebrates and nurtures international literary excellence.
The £30,000 Prize is awarded to the best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under.
About the Book
In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bangalore, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmiri salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to confront him.
But upon her arrival, Shalini is brought face to face with Kashmir’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in. And when life in the village turns volatile and old hatreds threaten to erupt into violence, Shalini finds herself forced to make a series of choices that could hold dangerous repercussions for the very people she has come to love.
Format: Paperback (464 pages) Publisher: Grove Press
Publication date: 2nd January 2020 Genre: Literary Fiction
Find The Far Field on Goodreads
The book switches back and forth in time between Shalini’s memories of her childhood and the visits of Bashir Ahmed, and her journey to Kashmir to try to track him down following her mother’s death. It’s skilfully plotted so there’s always more to be revealed and there is a tantalising sense of tension throughout. I expect I’m not the only reader who had a disturbing sense of history potentially repeating itself at certain moments.
The author brilliantly conveys the tensions within Shalini’s family, in particular her mercurial mother who can change from charming to disdainful in a moment, what Shalini refers to as her mother’s ‘lightning switch from one self to another.’ It’s something her father finds difficult to handle. With Bashir Ahmed and her mother, it’s a different matter. Shalini recalls, ‘Looking back, I can see that something powerful occurred in that moment and it still astonishes me all these years later: Bashir Ahmed understood in about five minutes what took my father decades‘.
Like some three dimensional chess game, Shalini recalls her younger self’s struggle to make sense of ‘these shifting, traitorous pieces – mother, visitor, father – trying to keep track of their masked sentences, their mutable moods, waiting for a clear sign of what my next move should be.’ The burden of keeping secrets is also evident. Shalini reflects, ‘I thought of all the secrets I had carried as far back into my childhood as I could remember. I felt them pile one on top of another, suffocating me.’ However, perhaps some secrets are best left buried.
The author’s acute observation of the way in which people interact is memorably displayed in a scene depicting what must surely be the most ill-judged dinner party in history.
I loved the descriptions of the small Kashmiri village where Bashir Ahmed’s family live and the details of everyday life. ‘…The houses were flung wide upon the mountainside, like a handful of brightly coloured toys tossed by a careless hand, separated by narrow rocky ridges and terraced cornfields.’ The generous hospitality offered to Shalini both by Bashir Ahmed’s family, and earlier by Abdul Latief and his wife, Zoya, shows how this is embedded in Indian culture. However, the tension between the different religious communities and the shadow of past events are always in the background, as Shalini will discover as she faces difficult decisions about her future and comes face to face with the realities of life in Kashmir. The contrasts are stark: ‘...this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty.’
One of the question the book poses is whether the impulse to act is always the wisest option, even for the best of intentions. “Isn’t that the important thing, to do something?” Shalini insists at one point. On the other hand, is the price of not acting just as high? Shalini’s experiences lead her to conclude that, in her family at least, ‘Ours has always been a story of cowardice, of things left unsaid.’ The book also reveals the unintended consequences on others of our actions. In Shalini’s case, this is manifested in a quite devastating way.
The Far Field is the sort of book I love: great writing, a compelling story that immerses me in the lives of its characters, and that gives me an insight into the culture and history of an area of the world about which I knew little. I am grateful to the Dylan Thomas Prize and Midas PR for the opportunity to read a book I might not otherwise have come across. It certainly deserves its place on the longlist, I hope it makes the shortlist and I would love to see it win.
In three words: Assured, acutely-observed, compelling
Try something similar: The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan
About the Author
Madhuri Vijay was born and raised in Bangalore. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and her writing has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, Narrative Magazine, and Elle India, among other publications.
The Far Field is her first book. She currently lives in Hawaii. [Photo credit: Dylan Thomas Prize/Manvi Rao]
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