“Over time, I told myself, I would try to deserve them all. […] I had chosen this place, these people, this life, with its secrets and its violence, its hardness and its beauty, and even thought I was not yet worthy, even thought I would never belong, I would not leave.I would stay and try.”
The Far Field is a striking debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a remarkably taught and exceedingly incisive slow-burner, one that will likely make the reader experience many unpleasant feelings, such as uncertainty, frustration, and unease.
After her mother’s death Shalini, a young woman from Bangalore, 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 can be overwhelming. Her arrested development makes it hard to totally condone her for her behaviour but she has plenty of cruel and selfish moments that will make it really hard for readers to forgive or sympathise with her. Her vulnerabilities certainly come through, for example, 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 deeply frustrating but it was also believable and it augmented the friction between her and other characters. Time and again readers will wonder if this time around she would be able to really live in the present and 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 angered 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. Then again, the two women, however likeable, also do not make things easier.
Shalini was deeply naive and self-centred, blind to her privilege and often does more harm than good. 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. 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).
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.
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 inadequate and cannot express or convey what we truly think or feel.
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, cowardice, and failed connections. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s lyrical writing allowed me to briefly forget of the discomfort 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.
Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.
my rating: ★★★★✰