The Far Field is an exceptional debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a quietly intense tale that both conjures and conveys feelings of uncertainty.
After her mother’s death Shalini becomes detached from her daily existence. Increasingly alienated from others she makes the impulsive decision to travel to a remote Himalayan village in Kashmir where Bashir Ahmed —an old friend of her mother’s— lives.
In an interview Vijay describes Shalini as being “remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even [she], as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice”. Well, I agree 100% with her. Shalini is a cypher. She is hesitant to demonstrate her feelings or to simply share her thoughts with the people who could potentially become her friends. Vijay has depicted her in this way quite intentionally. To me, Shalini’s inability to act was yes frustrating but it also created tension. Would she finally unwind? Could she be able to really live in the present? Connect with others?
Her journey does not follow the classic ‘coming of age’ that often occurs in similar novels (where a character travels somewhere to ‘find themselves’ or to come ‘to terms with their past). Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir are far more realistic. An ingrained distrust still dictates a lot of what she does. I was really saddened and frustrated by her half-hearted attempt at a friendship with Zoya and Amina. Shalini seems desperate to fill in the hole left by her mother’s death but she is also very reticent about revealing her innermost self.
Shalini was also utterly naive and rather self-centred. The few times she actually ‘acts’ or says something important she usually ends up doing or saying the wrong thing. She seems unable to read other people or to take in account what they too might be hiding/protecting their true emotions.
Given that Shalini is recounting her journey to Kashmir years after it, she often expresses the wish to have acted differently, and there are a lot of ‘if onlys‘ which furthered the tension of her story.
Having lived a life of comfort Shalini doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone knows those same comforts (which she has taken for granted).
There are chapters that focus on Shalini’s childhood and on her intense relationship with her fiery mother. It is perhaps because she is so young (and sheltered) that Shalini does not notice how trapped and unhappy her seemingly strong mother was. Their strained relationship takes its toll on both mother and daughter.
This novel depicts Shalini’s desperate attempts to belong and to reconcile herself with the way in which she treated (and was in turn treated by) her mother. Sadly, Shalini often acts under the wrong impression, and she either misunderstands others and or ends up being misunderstood by the ones she claims she cares for.
Vijay renders the way in which language can betray one’s intention or the way in which words often are not often.
This novel has a lot to wrestle with but it does so in a paced manner. This story is one of ambivalence and dissolution; the plot rests on the novel’s setting(s) and on Shalini’s interactions with mainly two other families. While the author does not shy away from portraying the religious conflict occurring in Kashmir, she focuses more on the experiences of various individual characters — the way in which they themselves are affected by dispute between India and Pakistan — rather than offering a dumbed down ‘overview’ of Kashmir’s long history of violence. Having Shalini as the narrator allows readers to glimpse Kashmir through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.
This is a story about privilege, guilt, grief, and isolation. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s writing lyrical writing often allowed me to forget of the unease created by her story. I kept hoping against hope that the ending would provide some sort of not quite magical solution but that it could at least give me some closure…but I’m afraid to say that the ending is what makes this a 4 star read rather than a 5 one. WHY?!
Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.
PS: I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Sneha Mathan. Mathan does an incredibly job. Her voice is 1)beautiful 2)capable of making me feel a wide range of emotions 3)simply captivating