A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
23 September 2002


What can I say that has not already been said by the reviewers on the flyleaf? I can say: read it and see for yourself. Don't be disillusioned by its mass. Every one of its 749 pages is absolutely worth it.

It's set in India, but that has no real effect on its content. On the plot, yes, an enormous effect: only the political and cultural atmosphere of India in the mid-1970s could support and permit the enclosed events to take place. But the content is fundamentally human suffering, and that is present in various incarnations in Canada and Ethiopia and New Zealand and India. Location is irrelevant to its tangibility.

When I read Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds I was impressed at the way she stripped her main character, gradually, of every person she loved, leaving her entirely alone. That was nothing compared to the strike and flash of Mistry's knife of words. Rather than steadily taking and taking, he gives to his characters. He makes it seem that everything is just about to come right, that the apparently inevitable happy ending is just around the corner - then his knife falls. And how it falls! With molten lead poured into ears, hot coals at genitals, bulldozed homes, ruined labour, forcible castration he slices hope from the characters' lives with his fine-edged blade.

Yet they kept going. To the joyless end and beyond they kept on picking themselves up and going on, finally walking out the door with barely a glance back, maybe laughing at our sensitivity. They continually say, as did Rajaram the hair-collector, "It's only a small obstacle." For all that there's no seed of hope on the final page, as you so often find with these tragic novels. Not this one. We are left in the full knowledge that the characters are fools, that life has won and they just don't know how miserable they are... that knowledge quickly fading as we return to our own equally hopeless existences.

When I was halfway through, the person who lent it to me asked me what I thought of it so far. I made non-commital noises. She said, "It's powerful". I was inwardly skeptical.

Halfway through is no place to judge from. In the last 100 pages the sharp gleaming knife falls again and again, heavier and heavier. I can now report that yes, it is powerful. Powerful like a long freight train as it reaches the crest of a hill. Standing at the bottom, I see the engine appearing slowly over the top and think, that train will take ages to make it down here. With all the weight of its cars behind it, the engine moves very slowly indeed. It strains to pull one car over the crest of the hill. Now the weight of that one car is helping it. The next car is a little easier, and the next easier again. Before I know it, most of the train is on my side of the hill and thundering down on me and nothing in the world is going to stop it before it gets to me.

Every now and then I find a fiction which impresses me. This is one of them. All my thanks to the owner of the book for its loan to me. She will be pleased to hear that it has replaced The Thorn Birds as my favourite novel of all time.


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