Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: The Lilac House

By Jami Deise

While women’s fiction and chick lit tends to be dominated by American and British writers, the themes the genre explores are global: love, relationships, parenthood. More specifically, one thread that writers turn to time and again are the casual, cruel ways men treat the women in their lives. India, the setting for Anita Nair’s complicated novel The Lilac House, is a country in which this cruelty is built into the very fabric of the nation. Female fetuses are routinely (if illegally) aborted; female babies smothered at birth; widows were once expected to throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre; gang rape is common and only just starting to be protested. It is ironic that a country where men outnumber women treats them so poorly.

Nair covers many of these subjects in The Lilac House, through two protagonists experiencing this cruelty first and secondhand. Meera, a 44-year-old mother of two and author of The Corporate Wife’s Guide to Entertaining, is suddenly deserted by her husband Giri, who blames her for his dissatisfaction with his life (and refusing to sell her family’s home, the Lilac House, so he can use the money to start his own business). Jak, a cyclone professor, has returned to India to care for his catatonic 19-year-old daughter Smriti and to try to uncover the truth about the accident that left her that way. When Meera’s publishing company rejects the premise of her latest book, she takes a job as Jak’s secretary, and helps him investigate the days leading to Smriti’s accident.

Meera is a tragic heroine. Although Giri is a self-centered jerk, she constantly blames herself for his actions and hopes for his return. Her own college-aged daughter blames her as well. She lives in a society where a woman is faulted for not being able to keep a man around and happy. In this way, she is similar to Jak’s mother, whose husband left her to live in an ashram. Jak himself is not without fault. Divorced, he seduces his colleagues’ married wives for sport. When he was younger, he froze his mother out of his life for getting married a second time. Yet the reader will root for these characters to come together romantically.

The Lilac House is a difficult novel to get through. It’s densely written and complicated, with myriad points-of-view, back stories, and flashbacks. I had trouble keeping track of who everyone was and how they were related to each other. Jak goes by several different names, which adds to the confusion. Meera has a habit of comparing herself to the Greek goddess Hera, and goes on long internal monologues referencing specific Greek myths. But the mystery at the core of the story – what really happened to Smriti – is compelling enough that it was worth working through those complications to get to the end.

It is not giving away too much of the novel to reveal that Smriti’s story touches on the suffering of Indian women in every way. The fact that Smriti herself was an American of Indian background, returning to her father’s home country with the idealized dream that she could make a difference, makes her tragedy a universal one. The Lilac House is not just a story about what happened to an Indian wife and an Indian daughter. Smriti is everyone’s daughter, a constant reminder that over half of the population is not safe simply because of her gender.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

Cindy Servatt said...

Great review! Thanks for sharing.