Umrigar’s debut unfolds raga-like, the histories of its people forming sustained riffs that spring from and return to the...

BOMBAY TIME

A first novel trains an unflinching eye on Indians at home and abroad. Set in contemporary Bombay, Umrigar’s story is both a valentine to the past and a lament for the present of its title city.

The residents of Wadia Baug, a middle-class apartment building inhabited by Parsis, gather for a wedding. The journeys to and from the wedding form short narrative bookends for the wedding itself, the principal present action. The narrator, however, is more interested in past than present, and so the paragraphs devoted to the wedding are often just weak excuses to explore bygone times. The result is a thin present with little drama, but a rich past with detailed accounts, sometimes amusing, sometimes lyrical, sometimes sad, of the characters’ individual histories and their eventual intersectings, the whole sometimes reading like summaries. Dosa Popat, an embittered widow and Wadia Baug’s resident gossip, observes the guests’ departures for the wedding and reflects on their stories while lamenting her own unrealized life—a promising academic career cut off before its beginning by a drunken promise of marriage made by her father. Jimmy Kanga, father of the groom, oversees the reception while considering the huge trajectory of his life from orphaned adolescence to law degree at Oxford, return to Bombay and life in the fast lane as a high-profile attorney, then a rejection of the high life for a return to his simpler, safer, and more satisfying Wadia Baug roots. Rusi and Coomi Bilimoria bitterly and sadly recall the failure of their marriage, ultimately achieving a tentative reconciliation on the bus ride home. At the close, all these individuals recede into the fabric of the city.

Umrigar’s debut unfolds raga-like, the histories of its people forming sustained riffs that spring from and return to the same source. The minimal plotting is at times contrived and sentimental, but the portrait of the city and its citizens is authoritative, richly textured, and engaging.

Pub Date: July 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-312-27716-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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