Readers who enjoy the works of Zadie Smith or Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar may find White Dancing Elephants to have some merit. If you are thinking of reading this collection I recommend you read some of the more positives reviews as my one is alas a negative one. For those who liked or loved it, I hope you will not feel the need to leave comments on the lines of ‘your opinion are invalid because I disagree with you’.
Anyhow, moving onto my actual review: this is, in my opinion, an execrable collection of short stories. These stories are poorly written, populated by boilerplate characters, deeply vitriolic and exceedingly vexing. White Dancing Elephants follows the usual ‘short stories collection’ formula, so that we have a few stories experimenting, with not so great results, with perspective (of course, a story is told through a 2nd pov because that is what every other collection out there is doing so might as well follow their lead), a story about miscarriage (bursting with metaphors about ‘brokeness’), a story about a character grappling with mental illness, and a story that earns this collection the LGBTQ+ badge (ahem not all queer representation is good representation). If you’ve read any collections of short stories published in the last 3 years, you have already read stories like these ones.
There was nothing subversive or unique about White Dancing Elephants. Attempts at ‘edginess’ came across as insensitive, for example, the author’s treatment of mental health was, to use a trendy word, deeply problematic. What irked me the most however was how unclear these stories were. The author seemed unable or unwilling to stick to a certain perspective, so that it would be unclear who was telling the story. And, these stories managed to be confusing, which is impressive given how short they were. This is probably due to the nebulous povs and the amount of info-dumping we would at the start of each story (informing us of a character’s heritage, their parents backgrounds, their friends’ genetic makeup or whatnot). Knowing who these characters were related to, most of the time at least, added absolutely nothing to each respective story as ‘family’ never seemed to be the plot’s real focus. Instead, each story seemed set on being as impressionistic as possible, so that we have ripe metaphors are intent on being ‘visceral’ but seem like mere writing exercises, and a plethora of ‘shock-value’ scenes. Personally I was unimpressed by the author’s language. We have oddly phrased things, such as “it gave her flickers of amusement” (while I get that you can observe on someone’s face a ‘flicker of amusement’ the ‘gave her’ in that sentence brings me pause), clichés such as “smiling the smile”, “smiling her gorgeous smile”, “my father a stranger until his death”, “ Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed.” (UGH! Give me a break). A lot of the stories start with very eye-grabbing statements, that tease some dramatic event that once explained or explored will feel deeply anticlimactic. Also, I could not help but be offended by the author’s garish depictions of rape and its aftereffects. And don’t even get me started on the role that same-sex attraction has in two of these stories. Puh-lease. There is a lot of women-hating-women, which can happen…but in nearly every story? (and WHY do we always have to get women making snidey remarks about other women’s stomachs?). Last but not least, I did not appreciate that the one story where a black man actually plays some sort of role, ends up portraying him as a racist and a predator. The author’s prose (if we can call it such), the derogatory tone, the detestable and showy characters, the uninspired stories…they all did nothing for me. To be perfectly frank the only thing that surprised about this collection was that it managed to get published in the first place.
Burnt Sugar is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2020. If you were able to appreciate this novel, I’m glad. This may be one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ cases…or maybe I’ve read too many stories exploring a complex mother/daughter relationship. To be perfectly frank, I bloody hated this book. It was painfully intent on nauseating the reader. We get it, the human body is base (Julia Kristeva has been there and done that). Burnt Sugar is ripe with garish descriptions of the abject human body: we have bodily fluids and waste, failing bodies, changing bodies (pregnancies, puberty), body parts compared to food or objects (breasts like dough, buttocks like empty sacks). The narrator of this novel, someone who was so remarkable I can no longer recall her name, is the classic disaffected woman who is alienated from everyone and everything. A few days before listening to Burnt Sugar I read Luster, a novel that features a similar type of character except that there the author manages to make her protagonist into a nuanced human being, one who isn’t nice or extremely likeable but is nevertheless realistic and capable of moving the read. But here, dio mio! The narrator comes across as petulant and myopic, understanding nothing about anything and no one. Readers are clearly not meant to like her but there are various scenes that try to elicit some sort of sympathy (the nuns mistreat her, her mother is mercurial, her ‘silly’ Indian-American husband is blind to her anguish) on her behalf. Except that I didn’t. The MC goes and on about her mother, but we never gain insight into her actual feelings towards her. The MC is happy detailing all the wrongs she has endured, and seems to insinuate that she has become such a stronza because of her mother. The whole thing is incredibly superficial. Here we have another mother who is ‘hysterical’ just because ‘hysterical’ mothers can make for some dramatic scenes. Indian-Americans are portrayed as foolish and brainwashed. Everybody is nasty and disgusting. Ha-ha! Oh wait, that isn’t quite ‘caustic wit’. There were a few—and when I say a few, I mean two or three—phrases that under certain circumstances (if you are as high as a kite) may come across as slightly amusing, but for the most part the MC’s cutting humour fell flat. Viewing everything as grotesque is hardly funny, and it gets tiring, fast. I also found the author’s treatment and portrayal of postnatal depression and dementia to be highly insensitive. The mother in question becomes ‘monstrous’, the type of character that one may expect in Victorian literature. Who cares about realism when you can write explicit and ‘subversive’ things for the sake of shock value? I think this was an awful novel…and it seems that I’m in the minority. Who cares. If you want to read it or loved it, good for you. I’m glad I was able to return this audiobook and I sincerely doubt I will ever try reading anything by this author.
Books with believably fraught mother/daughter relationships featuring alienated, disaffect, or challenging main characters : You Exist Too Much, The Far Field.
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