Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Konkans

When Ultrabrown posted about Tony D'Souza's new book The Konkans, and mentioned it was the story of a family created when a white woman who believed India to be her spiritual home married (as D'Souza puts it) "the one living-and-breathing souvenir of that place who could also get a job in America," I knew I had to schedule a block of time to visit Borders and read this book.

It is a lot like The Namesake, in that D'Souza and Lahiri both focus on squeezing about forty years of events into 150 pages, and thus the stories of the families themselves seem a bit surface-level; timeline rather than narrative. This happened, then this, then this. Unlike Lahiri, D'Souza presumes omniscience and tells the history not through the viewpoint of himself as his parents' son (this isn't a second-gen coming of age story; in fact, D'Souza's role in his own family narrative is tangential), but as a sort of floating narrator who attempts to portray everyone's motives and flaws honestly and equally.

The result is a depiction of characters both sympathetic and slightly repelling. Without giving too much away, it becomes clear that this unhappy family is unhappy in its own way because at the very start, the union of husband and wife was built on a double bait-and-switch; Denise, the white woman who travels to India via the Peace Corps to escape a childhood of poverty and abuse, and who wants more than anything to stay in the country where she first achieves a sense of agency and purpose, marries Lawrence assuming he is her ticket to an Indian passport; while Lawrence, who knows full well that he is using Denise to get to America (he and his parents conspire to make her life in India so miserable that she will begin to yearn for the comforts of the US), moves them both to Chicago only to find that Denise comes from a family of white trash and that he has, without knowing it, "married below his caste."

And then there's Lawrence's brother Samuel, whose visa Denise sponsors and who becomes the only person in her life to appreciate her for who she is. This kind of story is guaranteed a happy ending.

The characters in The Konkans are all searching for identities, and it is telling that the character who is most comfortable with his identity is neither the American wife wanting to raise an Indian family nor the Indian husband wanting to raise an American family, but Sam, the brother, who attempts -- and achieves -- a hybrid of both worlds. (That is, until Sam's father sends a letter telling Sam that a bride is waiting for him back in India.) We don't know enough about D'Souza's character to know where he fit into this family story (he ends his family narrative while his character is still a child), or how he built his own identity between the warring impulses of his parents, but -- as Ultrabrown notes -- he has already written about this subject in other novels and articles.

So. Would I recommend? I suppose my initial response is "sure, why not," but at the same time... well... let's put it this way. There are much better books out there, and better memoirs, and better discussions of cultural identity; but no other book with this particular combination of characters. That's the reason to pick it up and give it a try.

1 comment:

chachaji said...

Nice review, Blue! I was looking up reviews that other people had done, to link them to mine. But yours was from back in February!

Mine is here