As most of you might agree, having to write a review of a debut novel penned by an acquaintance is- more often than not- an uncomfortable situation to be in.
Of course, for most reviewers, it is also the easiest ‘uncomfortable situation’ to squeeze out of (after all, how difficult can it be to fit as many flowering-ly flattery and flatteringly flowery adjectives as one can come up with into a four para’d piece of generic praise that is aimed more at the author or at the association one shares with the author than at his or her book, right?)
But given that I am spending my time writing this review, and- more so- given that what I am reviewing now is only the first of many titles the author will get published under her name over the coming decade and beyond, I believe this situation rather warrants me giving honest albeit constructive feedback than me taking the easy way out of an uncomfortable situation.
In her debut novel, author Radhika Tabrez tells the story of Susan Pereira and Meera Vashisht, two women with disturbing pasts living together on a fictional island named Bydore. The former is a mother who has a strained relationship with her son whom she had sent away to boarding school as a kid and who has now grown up to resent his mother’s decision of keeping him away from normal family life.
The latter is a young girl, a victim of domestic abuse who has been bruised both physically and mentally before she comes into the lives of Susan and the other inhabitants of Bydore.
The book narrates the events that made these two characters meet and subsequently become inseparable (‘They were family’, as the author points out in a few memorable passages in the chapters early on). It further narrates the events that bring Susan’s son Mathew back to Bydore and subsequently how each character who is fighting his or her own internal demons is given an opportunity by fate (as only fate and fairy tales can) to heal and to find peace in the company of one another.
While the plot is fairly simple and the telling linear, the author manages to put in some interesting passages, especially the concluding paragraphs of the first few chapters that can easily be recognized as quality writing. Even in the chapters that appear later, the one element that clearly shines through is Tabrez’s ability to describe pain and loss.
The letter from Susan to her son is done quite well and spurs the right kind of sentiment inside the reader’s mind. I also liked how the writer tries to introduce humor in a few scenes where the characters involved are facing serious dilemmas.
The writing in general flows smoothly- if only a tad slowly- and most sentences do not jar. The tone of the narration is even and also quite steady, something that I found appreciable given that this is a debut novel by an amateur Indian author.
However, what I say next is basis what I know of Radhika Tabrez’s capability as a writer and not basis the fact that this is a debut novel by an amateur Indian author.
Overall, I felt that In the Light of Darkness lacked a lot. The plot is too straightforward and so is the depiction of most of the characters, including the protagonists. I understand that at its core what the writer has aimed to tell is a simple story. It is however, the telling of it that could have been much more engaging had this simple story been shown through scenes and dialogue instead of employing a broad and omniscient style of narration.
I believe this would have helped a lot in the readers feeling more for the characters and their circumstances.
Events such as Susan’s death and few others that are pivotal to the story should have had a build up towards them and in absence of this they fail to make the kind of impact on a reader that the author would ideally wish for.
Halfway into the novel, I came across the below passage that I now consider as the best passage that there is in this novel:
Just as he was about to go inside, Matthew stopped suddenly, turned around and started scanning the crowd behind him, impatiently. His friends caught up with him a few seconds later. He looked at them in a way that meant goodbye; only he couldn’t bring himself to say the words. Finally, he spoke, his eyes unable to handle his remorse and bereavement anymore.
“Maanav… My mother is dead!” and he broke down.
I loved it because the dialogue at the end made the scene feel extremely real to me. Real, yes. But not ordinary- an important distinction that I felt the author should have made judiciously while writing other scenes, especially the key ones. The novel required more of this.
And now, for the benefit of the author (and also of others who might consider worthwhile the views of an as yet unpublished and unrecognized writer), I digress a little-
What makes an indie novel or film work?
Every time I attempt to articulate on my opinion in this matter, I am reminded of a scene in the last act of John Carney’s indie musical ‘Once’; a scene in which a side character is shown to be cooking in her kitchen. So, we have the actress who plays the female lead’s mother standing over a frying pan, sprinkling pepper into it, and then proceeding to run a skillet over it.
A five second shot, max. After that the montage moves on to shots featuring the lead actors.
Now that’s alright, don’t you think?
The problem is, you don’t even need to look closely to spot that what the actress is standing over, sprinkling pepper into and running a skillet over… is an empty fucking pan! So what you are basically watching is a character in a Hollywood film cooking invisible food.
A clear goof-up is what it is and not the only one that the film is full of. And Carney let all of these remain in the final film!
Now THIS is bad craftsmanship, don’t you think?
Well, guess again.
I have seen Once not once, not twice but atleast twenty times already (if not more).
It is a fantastic musical that makes you want to keep going back to it, both for the songs and for the innocence with which the love story between the two leads has been portrayed.
Yes, the ultra-low budget the director had to make do with shows at many places. The editing and the camerawork are shoddy. Some of the side actors are- as is evident in the scene I have mentioned before- either acting to act or hopeless at even that. But the film still comes together so well.
The reason being, Carney knew he wanted to make a good musical and therefore invested heavily in the elements that form the core of a good musical - the songs and the singers!
My point being, all things said and done about how one can perfect the art of writing/filmmaking, a storyteller must always remember that it is ultimately what lies at the core of his story that matters the most. Having a strong theme never hurts.
To conclude- both my digression and my review- In the Light of Darkness is a decent debut by Radhika Tabrez. However, I am of the opinion that the writer has a much stronger voice than this and has much stronger themes to write on.
I congratulate her on the book being published, which is no mean feat. I am however, more interested in seeing what she delivers next, considering that the experience from writing this book will only have made her a better writer than she already is.