The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

2/5 stars.
ebook, 310 pages.
Read from March 07 to 21, 2016.

So let me get this straight, I’m actually supposed to like and sympathize with the characters in this book? Because that didn’t happen.

Sripathi is a middle aged man living a life of regret. He has a wife and two children; his son, Arun, is an environmentalist and protester who doesn’t work, while his daughter Maya, is accepted into a prestigious school in Canada. Unfortunately for Sripathi, Maya ends up breaking off an arranged engagement in order to marry a Canadian she falls in love with. Sripathi disowns his daughter after she breaks off her engagement, which brought him and his family shame, and has not talked to her since. Sadly, Maya and her husband die in car crash leaving their only child Nandana behind, and with Sripathi listed has her caregiver in the couples will. Having never met his granddaughter and having to deal with the death and guilt he feels about his own daughters death, Sripathi must try to deal with his feelings and do what is best for the child.

I understand that aspects of the Indian culture don’t do favors to either men and women in terms of what is expected of them but I still couldn’t sympathize with the characters and their choices. Sripathi failed to live up to the unattainable expectations, social standings and dreams that his mother, Ammayya set out for him. Ammayya is an extremely bitter and skeptical woman who was cheated on by her husband before he died and left her and her family with no money. When Sripathi didn’t become a doctor, her resentments transferred to him. She is a horrible person who manipulates her family and never lets go or forgives. Sripathi, never gets over the expectations laid on him and never learns to deal it so he lives a shallow and disconnected life.  His unwillingness to let go resulted in him not being able to forgive Maya before she died. Maya appeared to be the only person in the book that lived her own life and made her own choices successfully and admirably. Let me break this down:

Arun: Son of Sripathi. He spends his time at rallies and protests and doesn’t do a thing to help support the home he lives in. Sripathi is annoyed with him over this and I completely understand. Sripathi doesn’t understand his son until the end of the book and Arun doesn’t understand Sripathi’s frustration until the end of the book.

Putti: Sripathi’s unmarried sister and daughter to Ammayya. Probably the only character I sympathized with. She is in her 40s and is unmarried, which in this culture, means she is still living with her family as she is unable to support herself. The reason is because of her horrible and selfish mother refuses all suitors so that she can keep Putti to herself and have her take care of her. Putti is secretly in love with the milk man but he is of a lower caste than her so Ammayya would never allow it.

Ammayya: Mother to Sripathi and Putti. Bitter and ancient old, she has never forgiven her deceased husband or Sripathi for failing her. There is sympathy to be had for how her husband treated her, but her choices and actions after his death are disgusting. She over-dramatizes everything and pretty much makes Putti her personal slave. She snoops through her family’s belongings for money to steal and items worth selling. I wanted her to die the entire book.

Nirmala: Is Sripathi’s wife. While she is initially portrayed as the typical passive Indian wife, after the death of Maya she finally decides to start taking charge and doing things for herself. She grieves immensely for Maya and blames Sripathi for everything. She puts all of her energy into caring for Nandana when she arrives.

Sripathi: Son of Ammayya. Never met the ridiculously high expectations of his mother. He dropped out of medical school to become a copywriter. He enjoys writing snarky opinion letters to the editor in his own time and is responsible financially for all of the above characters on his modest income. He is angry and distant from his family.

Lovely cast of characters right? Not. While each of them have moments of growth and softness it was still a challenge to get involved in their stories. I believe the point of this novel is to focus on the failures and triumphs of everyday people and everyday lives but it just didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t connect to culture or the characters. I did enjoy the chapters in which Sripathi was recollecting on his strict childhood as it gave me a better understanding about why he and his family acted the way that they did, but some how it wasn’t a good enough excuse.

In our own lives, we experience setbacks, failures and regrets but ultimately they make us stronger, that is, if we are making choices in our own best interest and not in the interest of others. Which, appears to be the failing of the culture where this book is set unfortunately. To me, this book is exactly what not to do. Sripathi waited until his mid-fifties to forgive and start living! You could say that it’s never too late to do that, but I don’t believe that: Ammayya died not forgiving anyone and lived a miserable life and Sripathi lost his daughter before he had a chance to forgive.

Additionally, I felt that the author missed some pinnacle emotional moments. The time that Sripathi spent in Vancouver is short and void of emotion. I also felt that Nandana’s side of the story was lacking but perhaps it’s because she is truly the only one to feel sorry for in this book. The book’s climax and related title, I also felt, were weak.

I suppose for those that understand some of traditions and difficulties of Indian culture, they may have a better time relating and sympathizing with this book but for me, the detached characters and lack of certain emotional elements made it too challenging for me to fully engage with.

In terms of Canada Reads, each of the character did start over. Well except for Ammayya, as she died, but that’s okay. If you read the book, you’ll hate her too. So I guess in terms of the theme this book checks all the right boxes but I don’t believe this book is the best candidate so far.

 

 

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

3/5 stars.
ebook, 456 pages.
Read from February 22 to March 06, 2016.

Bam! 3 out of the 5 Canada Reads books and I still have a few weeks left March to finish the last two!

I love this book cover. I was immediately drawn to the book as soon as I saw it. The close up of the two girls with different skin tones with the blue background really makes the image pop. Kudos to the designer.

Beena and Sadhanna are sisters. They’re very different from each other and they don’t always get along but they share a bond that has been shaped over their peculiar upbringing and shared tragedy. After being raised by mixed parents, one of Indian descent and the other white, the girls were raised on a mix of spiritual and Muslim beliefs that they soon learned were different from the other children they knew. After numerous tragedies strike their family, they find themselves orphaned and under the care of their Sikh uncle who runs a bagel shop in Montreal’s Hasidic community of Mile End. As the girls get older, Beena finds herself pregnant at a young age while Sadhanna battles with anorexia.

As a reader, you first meet Beena as an adult who is fresh with grief over the death of Sadhanna. Beena must now uncover some of her sister’s secrets and learn more about the cause of her death, all while opening fresh wounds and the tumultuous memories of the past.

I wanted to like this book more. There were aspects about the book and certain sections that I found hard to put down but I didn’t feel like I got to know narrator, Beena, as much I should have and I was left longing and disappointed with the ending. While I didn’t always like Sadhanna, I felt like I knew her better as  Beena took me through her very personal struggles with anorexia. Even with everything that Beena went through, I never felt that I got to know her as well because Sadhanna just felt more raw. Perhaps it was supposed to be that way, as Beena spent a large portion of her life taking care of her sister, regardless of what was going on, so perhaps her feelings are a bit muted.

I also thought that the book could have been at least 100 pages shorter. Don’t get me wrong, there were beautiful sections to this novel, but despite its length I was still left wanting at the end. I don’t want to give anything away, but I really dislike the choice that Beena made about one of her sister’s belongings at the very end of the book. Probably because I was more attached to Sadhanna and wanted to know more of what she had to say.

Sadhanna’s story is still worth reading though. This book gives a perfect rendition of what it is like to have a loved one be very unwell with a mental illness. The spite, the exhaustion and the constant watchfulness and worry that comes with caring for a loved with an illness like anorexia.

In regards to the Canada Reads theme, ‘starting over’,  with the events that had happened to Beena she certainly had to start over in certain aspects of her life but she wasn’t all that dynamic of a character. In the end, she still kept her grudge against the father of her son and didn’t reconnect with her son as much as I would have expected. While Beena’s life had changed inexplicably with the death of Sadhanna, the novel didn’t feel like her story, it felt like Sadhanna’s. So while I enjoyed this book, out of the novels I’ve read so far, I would say that this one doesn’t fit the theme as well as the others so far.

 

 

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

4/5 stars.
Read from February 09 to 17, 2016.
ebook, 335 pages.

I judged this book by its cover initially and wasn’t overly keen to read it but as soon as I found out that large portion of the book was about running, my attitude quickly changed.

I’m actually speeding along quite well through the Canada Reads this year! To be fair, the novels have been really good so far and I’ve also had the time. My schedule has changed substantially now though but the goal is to continue with this pace.

Keita Ali is the son of a prominent journalist who lives in the war torn and impoverished nation of Zantoroland. While he dreams of becoming a famous marathon runner, his sister Charity dreams of higher education and being more like their father. Charity is eventually accepted into Harvard and while Keita is getting offers to become an elite runner he cannot leave their father, especially not after their corrupt government has tortured him leaving him cripple and frail. Tensions in the country are escalating and Keita knows that if they don’t leave the country soon, they will perish. When his father is captured again, Keita heeds his father’s advice and agrees to leave the country with an running agent named Anton, who can get Keita into the country of Freedom State. Unfortunately, Anton is a scam artist with an anger management issue so Keita quickly decides he must part ways with this man as soon as possible. Freedom State is not kind to illegal immigrants, especially those from Zantoroland due to their extensive histories, but Keita seems to have an impact on all of the people he meets, all of which, have their own troubles and stories but are going to play an essential part in Keita’s as well.

Shortly after arriving, Keita finds he cannot get a hold of his sister and that Anton is out for blood for abandoning him. He is running as many races as he can to get money to get by but he is plagued by a mysterious medical issue and he is finding it harder and harder to keep a low profile. Keita knows that he can be deported at any time, which would certainly mean death for him. Through Keita’s journey you’re taken through the most impoverished part of Freedom State, called AfriTown, where all the illegals are living out of storage containers with no amenities. As more people learn of Keita’s successes, he inadvertently gets the attention of the Freedom State government, which has its own state of corruption. While the people that Keita meets are hoping to create change within Freedom State, Keita must struggle and run for his life, as well as that of his sister’s.

While the countries of Freedom State and Zantoroland are completely made up, it’s clear that they reflect real places with similar issues. This novel discusses some of the most pressing issues facing the world right now with the movement of refugees from the middle east and the political struggles it’s causing.

As a runner, there was a massive appeal for me with this book, as I could relate to all of the racing details that author included as well as Keita’s love for the sport. Even with that, the plot work is impressive and that was what kept me from putting this book down. Each character that Keita meets gets to narrate a small portion of their own story and the author did an amazing job of interweaving all of the character’s plots together. The book is seamless and the characters are quick to draw you in.

The book is also a great feel-good read as the characters, that you quickly become heavily invested in, all get redemption in the end. Sadly, that is not the case for many real-life refugees of today. This novel is a real eye-opener for those that don’t understand the issues facing some of today’s refugees and the importance of human-kindness and open doors during such trying times.

This was a phenomenal read and is currently at the top of my list for this year’s Canada Reads. This book is the epitome of starting over. New country, no family and suffering that many cannot not even fathom, yet coming out against all odds all because of kindness.  I would recommend this book to anyone. While the book may be fictional, the suffering, corruption and struggles that the refugees of today face, is not. Hill has written a potent, inciting and exciting read that is extremely relevant and morally thought provoking.