Hillstation by Robin Mukherjee. In a small village in the Indian Himalayas, a young man named Rabindra prays and prays for an English bride, who he thinks will rescue him from his boring, small-scale life. Because despite being set in the modern day (presumably? I had a hard time figuring out what time period this was supposed to be in, but a character mentions CDs at one point, so I think it can't be earlier than the 90s), his village is extremely traditional. Every person is named after a deity and expected to embody that god or goddess's attributes. There are no movies, no TVs, no pop music, no cellphones, and the villagers apparently don't even know how to work a landline:
‘Where’s the nearest phone?’ asked Hendrix.
‘There are no telephones here,’ said Mr Chatterjee after a short silence. ‘Since anybody wishing to talk to anyone else has only to walk a few yards to find them. If they’re not at work or at home, they’ll be in the shops or at the bus stop. In any case, by the time you’ve found them you’ll have told any number of people on the way, so they would have most likely heard it from somebody else anyway.’
‘That’s if anyone’s listening,’ snickered someone unkindly.
‘There is such a thing,’ said Sergeant Shrinivasan, ‘in my office in the police station. It is a device of a peculiar shape with the word “Telephone” written on it.’
‘Does it work?’ said Mr Aptalchary, slightly shocked.
‘Extremely well,’ said the Sergeant, ‘in that its primary purpose is to stop piles of paper fluttering about when the window is open.’
‘But what else does it do?’ said Mike, perking up.
‘I am not sure,’ said the Sergeant. ‘But once a year or so it produces a terrible jangling noise that makes me jump out of my seat. In fact, one afternoon I accidentally knocked the top bit from the bottom thing and a ghostly voice called out.’ The Sergeant clutched his medals, a frequent symptom, for him, of remembered anxiety.
‘What did it say?’ asked Hendrix.
‘Hello, hello, is anybody there?’ recalled the Sergeant, shuddering.
To give Mukherjee the benefit of the doubt, he seems not to be attempting to be authentic in any way, but means to give the story the feel of a fairy-tale or a quirky Wes Anderson movie. Still, it put me off from the first pages, since all I could think was how incredibly un-Indian the setting was. It reminded me a bit of Life of Pi (note: I didn't like Life of Pi, so that's not a compliment).
Anyway, Rabindra's prayers are answered when a troupe of English dancers arrives in his small village due to a series of accidents and miscommunications. Convinced that at least one of them must be his fated true love, he attempts to attach himself to them; the dancers, of course, have no interest in getting married. Culture clash ensues. Over the course of the book the village is thrown into upheaval, secrets are revealed, friendships tested, and Rabindra proves to be worth more than he ever realized.
It's all told in a very light-hearted way, more interested in comedic effect than realism. That's fine and pleasant for the first hundred pages or so, but the tone clashes badly with some late plot developments, including attempted self-immolation, a depiction of casteism (a scene which, in addition to fitting badly with the humor, reads like Mukherjee once heard that caste exists in India and proceeded to learn nothing more), and some rather graphic violence.
Clearly this sort of modern myth (tinge of magic? check! moralistic ending? check! implausible setting contrived mainly to reify the reader's more industrialized/globalized/stressful home? check!) appeals to someone, because otherwise people wouldn't keep writing, filming, and selling them, but whoever the audience is, it's not me.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett. Hey, remember when I was rereading the Discworld series? I gotta get back to that. And so here we are at book #16, in which Death, unable to move past his grief for his adopted daughter and son-in-law, quits his job and goes on a world trip to learn how to forget. Unfortunately someone has to fill the job of moving souls along, and Death's sixteen-year-old granddaughter Susan gets sucked into the role despite her determination to be unsuperstitious, logical, and never silly. Meanwhile, a trio of musicians consisting of a human named Imp y Celyn (Welsh for "Bud of the Holly"), a horn-playing dwarf, and a troll dummer invent
To be honest, Soul Music has never been my favorite of the Death books. I think I'm not familiar enough with classic rock of the 50s through the 80s to get many of the references, and the "regular human has to take over Death's job" plot is quite similar to Mort, though I like it better there. But for all that, it's still a Discworld book, which means the standard of comparison is incredibly high. Susan is a fantastic new character, there are tons of funny lines, and the image of the Dean in leather robes with 'BORN TO RUNE' studded on the back is one that has stuck with me for years. It's hard to ask for more than that.
What are you currently reading?
Court of Five by Kate Elliott. I had a two-day long migraine this week, and needed something that was A) on paper, and not a screen, and B) very comforting. Luckily I bought this last month, and it very much fits the bill!
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