A Dickensian sense of the interconnections of place, character, and fate and a powerful rendering of the experience and consequences of aging and bodily decay—such are the great strengths of this absorbing third novel from the Indian-born Canadian resident (A Fine Balance, 1996, etc.).
Mistry is a deservedly much-honored writer who has won Canada’s Governor General’s Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. And he achieves a real triumph with this story’s wonderful protagonist: 79-year-old retired professor Nariman Vakeel, whom we meet in the lavish Bombay apartment (in a building called “Chateau Felicity”) he shares with his intemperate stepdaughter Coomy and her passive brother Jal. In lengthy flashbacks, Nariman recalls the great mistake of his earlier years: forsaking the Catholic woman he loved, and yielding to parental pressure to marry the Parsi widow who meant nothing to him—as her children (Coomy and Jal) have long known. When Nariman breaks an ankle, his stepchildren (a virtual Goneril and Regan) send him to live with the family of his natural daughter, Roxana Chenoy, in a crowded, filthy tenement—where Nariman slides into helplessness, and Roxana patiently bears this new burden. The King Lear–derived plot is handled beautifully (especially whenever Mistry enters Nariman’s consciousness). But efforts to broaden the story’s scope seem, by comparison, forced—especially in sequences detailing the desperate grasp for upward mobility made by Roxana’s husband Yezad, whose yearnings for a better life for his family propel him toward gambling and crime (a development ironically echoed by the schoolboy “career” of manipulative exploitation pursued by the Chenoys’ elder son Jehangir).
Nevertheless, a powerfully lurid picture of Bombay’s multiplicity, energy, and squalor is built up with masterly skill. And the characters of Nariman and the Gandhi-inspired Roxana (her father’s Cordelia) are not easily forgotten.