Hmm, what can I possibly write about this book? I read Anjali Joseph’s Another Country because it was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. Against my better judgement, I finished it because it was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Prize.
This is what they say about it:
Paris, London, Bombay: three cities form a backdrop to a journey through Leela’s twenties at the dawn of the new millennium, as she learns to negotiate the world, work, relationships and sex, and find some measure of authenticity. Sharp, funny, and melancholy, Another Country brings a cool eye to friendship, love, and the idea of belonging in its movements through old and new worlds. As with her debut, Saraswati Park, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Betty Trask Prize and India’s Vodafone Crossword Prize, Anjali Joseph’s beautiful, clear writing captures exactly both emotions and surroundings.
Not only that, but the blurb at the Book Depository says it’s a superb second novel from an award-winning author. And fellow shadow-juror Mark Staniforth’s mum liked it too.
I think I must have been reading a different book. Maybe there was a mixup with the covers? Perhaps they rushed out some ‘not-bad-but-needs-a-lot-of-work’ first draft by mistake when there was a rush on the title and they had to do a hasty reprint?
Readers, I fear I will lose any credibility I might ever have as a reviewer of literary fiction if I don’t tell you straight out that Another Country is possibly the most
tedious boring book I have ever read. (Well, maybe not quite as boring as that book I had about statistics at Teachers’ College. But close! Yes, close).
Readers of this blog know that I do not necessarily require a plot to enjoy a book. I don’t necessarily need to like the characters and I don’t need to care about them either. I can get by with minimal attention to setting. I can often make sense of the vague, the confusing or the rambling and if all else fails I might fossick around for some postmodernist elements to imbue the book with some gravitas.
I can’t think of anything nice to say about this one
except that it’s not too long. 263 pages of the inane doings and inconclusive relationships of an inane 20-something in Paris, London and Bombay is more than this shallow novel needs. I didn’t find it ‘sharp, funny, or melancholy’, I found the writing flat, the tone self-indulgent and the preoccupations vacuous. Navel-gazing Leela and her inane pals, who do nothing much except get drunk, sleep around a bit, smoke a bit of dope, decide what to wear, what to eat and where to hang out, are the kind of young people who give young people a bad name because they are so self-absorbed.
(I’m sorry, I’ve used ‘inane’ three times in that paragraph. I can’t help it.)
Even when the author does manage to write a couple of evocative scenes in Bombay she ruins it with yet another asinine conversation about nothing at all. It was this the rambling on that made me want to go and weed the garden or do the ironing or even *shudder* clean out the shed, rather than get on with it and finish the book.
Here’s an example:
Eleven o’clock. Lella got up to go to the cafeteria, came back with a cup of horrible coffee and a fruit salad that she would eat too quickly and which might give her indigestion but would fend off hunger. The kiwi would be surprisingly tasty. The pineapple would be unripe. The orange would be insufficiently peeled. The grape would be sour.
[Too much information, right? (Especially about the indigestion). But wait, there's more.]
She opened the flimsy plastic box and yellow juice spurted onto her newspaper. She wiped it away, sat down, stuck the little fork into the grape and realised she had an email.
The grape turned out to be sweet.
The email’s sender was Roger.
[So now *groan* we get
her 'emotional response' a whole lot of egocentric claptrap.]
‘Dear Leela,’ it began, and she read other words, ‘the other day’, ‘see you’, and a mobile number. Her immediate feeling was delight, the usual mysterious intimation that the world did in fact agree to her desires, that she was as magically connected to it as she had always sensed, while sometimes fearing this was not the case; this was followed by sorrow that possessing the content of the email meant losing the promise it retained while unread. (p.135)
[The author even gives us the mobile phone number in the next paragraph where we get the full text of this email, so full of portent to Leela. I had to keep reminding myself that she and her shrieking girlfriends are in her twenties, not 14.]
If Another Country is an authentic portrait of university-educated young people footloose in the world, the planet is in big trouble because they have not the slightest awareness of its complexity. But if exposing the shallowness of this generation is the premise of the book, the intention is well-camouflaged. (Not to mention at odds with my much more positive experience of this age group).
Nobody else likes it much either. Nisha Lilia Diu at The Telegraph is nicer about it than I am but found it underwhelming. Alice Fisher at The Guardian thinks it unlikely that Leela’s dispassionate journey through her 20s will win plaudits. Fellow shadow-juror Matt at A Novel Approach thought the writing seems apathetic … and … not really very interesting, and Mark from Eleutherophobia thought it was monotonous and that precious little of [Leela's] life [was] particularly novel-worthy.
So, who? what? how? did this book get its award nomination? You can visit Anjali Joseph’s website to see snippets from more enthusiastic reviewers if you like. I’m still mystified. I think this is a classic case of a young author rushed into producing a second novel after a successful debut, and that her publishers have done her no favours at all.
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury. To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.
If this book does win the Man Asian, especially after the painful sentimentality of the 2011 winner Please Look After Mother, the prize will have no credibility at all as an award for literary fiction.
Author: Anjali Joseph
Title: Another Country
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2012
Source: Personal copy, purchased from The Book Depository, $15.85 AUD.