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From beauty myth to family jealousy in six steps

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation where the idea is to create a chain of book connections. This month we begin with a non-fiction title from 1990: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

beauty mythThere is in a clue in the subtitle  “How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women” about the primary message of this book. Wolf argues that as the social power and prominence of women have increased, the pressure to conform to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty has also grown stronger because of commercial influences on the mass media.  Amongst her evidence she cites a rise in cases of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the rapid growth of plastic surgery.

The Beauty Myth became a best seller and generated considerable debate. I remember thinking when I read it that, though interesting and thought-provoking, it wasn’t anywhere near as convincing as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I’ll give Wolf  a lot of credit however for bringing the topic out into the open. Sadly, we see evidence regularly that the issues she saw then haven’t gone away.

PygmalionLet’s stay with myth and beauty for my first link: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, is a play about a professor who trains a poor, uneducated girl to act and speak like a lady. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor unable to find any real woman who fitted his idea of the perfect female. He carves a statue out of ivory that is so beautiful and so perfect that he falls in love with it and wants to give it life.

 

 

Nora WebsterPygmalion is of course a story about transformation and change; a theme which is central to my next book; also by an Irish writer. In Nora Webster Colm Toibin gives us a deep and penetrating portrayal of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband. She returns to the office work she thought she had left behind forever, begins listening to the classical music her husband never liked and starts making new friends. One of the most significant signs that she is moving on comes when she visits the hairdresser and emerges with a radical new style.

 

I could link to another work about transformation,  Educating Rita by Willy Russel, in which a young uneducated hairdresser enrols for an Open University degree course because she wants more from life.  I’ve seen the stage version and watched the film multiple times (it’s one of my all time favourites) but I can’t really use it for this chain since it would mean breaking my rule that I select only texts I’ve read.

AmericanahSo let’s go down a different path and to another book which uses hair styles as part of a theme about identity. The main character in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie only begins to feel truly free and true to her Nigerian roots when she decides she will no longer spend hours and vast sums of money on having her hair ‘relaxed’.  Hair, she comes to realise, is a political issue in America with black women expected to relax their natural curls with strong chemicals in order to conform to comfortable white norms. Before she makes her first return home to the Nigeria she left 15 years earlier, she visits a salon to have her hair braided.

portrait of a lady

I’m sticking with the issue of identity for my next book. A Portrait of a Lady is one of Henry James’ most respected novels. It wasn’t one I enjoyed at first reading – I found it incredibly slow (page after page where nothing much happens except someone opens an umbrella)… I must admit I skimmed many passages. It wasn’t until I re-read the book that I began to fully appreciate this tale of a young American woman who insists that she must be free to write her own plot and then to live with the unfortunate consequences of her decisions. Still not sure I understand the ending however….

 

God - of-small-thingsConsequences takes me to India and to a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1997. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy  has two captivating characters in the form of  Rahel Kochamma and her brother Esth. They’re used to being the centre of attention so when their new cousin arrives to spend Christmas at the family home, their noses are put out of joint. Their jealousy has tragic repercussions that don’t become apparent until the final chapters of the novel. Until then we’re treated to some tremendous comic scenes involving these effervescent twins.

 

Lives of OthersThe family rivalries depicted in Arundhati Roy’s novel remind me of Neel Mukherjee’s  novel The Lives of Others which is set in India during the second half of the 1960s. In it we meet three generations of the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who live together in one house, their rooms allocated on a strictly hierarchical basis. The  patriarchal Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor., the widow of their youngest son is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. Inevitably there are tensions over saris and wedding jewellery.

 

And with that I’ve reached the end of a chain which has moved from notions of beauty through female identity to familial disputes. If you’re interested in how other bloggers created their chains, take a look at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and also find out how to join the meme hosted by Kate.

 

 

 

Surely I’ve read more??

sundaysalonIt seems I have been operating under an illusion for the past few months. If you’d asked me one thing about my reading habit this year, I would have said that I read more of the current year’s new titles than ever before.  I didn’t set out with a plan to read the new works but I do like to have at least a sense of what’s new in literature. But when I saw the recently-announced list of 80 finalists for the 2015 Folio Prize, I realised the reality was very different from my perception.

Of those 80 books published in 2014, I have read just two: The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith. I’m half way through a third title – All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu and have three more on reserve in the library but I doubt they will get to me before the year is over. I know the list represents only a fraction of what was actually published this year, this is meant to be the cream after all, so it was entirely conceivable that I had read some 2014 titles that just never made the cut. A quick look at my reading list reassured me a little – there were another six works of fiction that I’ve read. Panic over!

The experience did make me look more closely at what I’ve been reading this year. I was in for another surprise – I finished only four titles from my Classics Club list which is very slow progress. If I’m going to complete the 50 books in this project by the target date of August 2017, I’m really going to have to get a move on.  I did considerably better with my world literature project fortunately (15 of the books I  read fell into this category).

I wouldn’t have known any of this if I hadn’t started keeping a list of everything I’ve read. I never did that before I began blogging so if you’d asked me what I was reading 5 years ago let alone 10 or 15, I wouldn’t have had a clue. Lists it seems do have their purpose.

How has your reading year been – any surprises for you too?

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Lives of OthersNeel Mukherjee’s new novel The Lives of Others is an ambitious blend of family saga and political turbulence set in India during the second half of the 1960s.

The narrative is broad ranging, oscillating between the quotidien of the Ghosh family in their sprawling Calcutta home and the villages and rice fields of western Bengal where Communist guerrillas hide in the jungle plotting insurrection.  These two elements appear disconnected initially but Mukherjee juxtaposes them to show how a crisis in the institution of the family echoes and parallels the fractures and cracks appearing in Indian society itself.

At the centre of the novel is the large and relatively wealthy Ghosh family who have seen their fortunes grow through investments in paper mills stretching across the sub continent. Three generations of this family live together in strictly hierarchical allocations of rooms and space within the home. The ageing patriarchal figure of Prafullanath and his wife Charubala live on the top floor. As befitting her status on the lowest rung of the family tree, Purba, the widow of their youngest son, is relegated to a storage room on the ground floor of the house. There she and her two children subsist on a diet of dal and rice and whatever leftovers are despatched from above.

BengaliweddingjewelleryBeneath the calm, tensions begin appearing within this family. Jealousy over gifts of saris and wedding jewellery escalate from acts of pettiness into acts of malice; one son has to be married off quickly to avoid scandal when he gets a local girl pregnant and a grandson secretly experiments with drugs and eventually becomes an addict. Charubala frets about the impossibility of getting her daughter Chhayha married, most suitors being turned off by her too-dark skin and turned eye. Then union unrest at the mills threatens to bring the business down.

All of these problems are nothing however compared to the sudden disappearance of one of the elder grandsons. The family fear Supratik has joined the Naxalites, a guerrilla wing of the outlawed communist party that is responsible for acts of insurgency against the government. All they have is a note he left behind:

Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own. I feel I live in a borrowed house. It’s time to find my own. Forgive me.’

Supratik finds his privileged life style and early escapades as a student activist have little prepared him for life amidst the farmers and villagers on whose behalf he is fighting. It’s when he sees their struggle to scratch out a living from the land, getting deeper and deeper into debt at the hands of moneylenders and landowners, that his eyes are opened to the reality of life. It’s not easy to get these poor people interested in land reform and communist principles when they can have to put every ounce of energy into keeping alive.

…now I knew yet another reason why everyone in the heart of rural Bengal went to sleep so early. When you worked in the fields from six in the morning to four in the afternoon, the tiredness resulting from it stunned you into silence. You went from being a human, animated by a mind and spirit and consciousness at the beginning of the day to a machine without a soul at the end of those ten hours, moving your arms and legs and mouth because you felt some switch hadn’t been turned off. There it was, and the machine was dead, or just a stopped machine.

Mukherjee provides Supratik with  numerous other flashes of insight as a counter to his overall  naivety and real lack of understanding of how powerless he and his intellectual bourgeois ‘comrades’ are against the forces of officialdom. Just as as his grandparents don’t see what goes on under their noses within their house, he doesn’t comprehend what is really happening in society.

This is an ambitious book which nicely blends domestic drama and political turmoil, and humour with pathos. Rose Tremain summed it up perfectly for me:

Neel Mukherjee has written an outstanding novel: compelling, compassionate and complex, vivid, musical and fierce.

This is surely a contender for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

The Lives of Others was ublished in UK by Chatto & Windus on May 22. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

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