Book Review: The Far Field

“Without action there is only waiting for death”

The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay, is narrated by a thirty year old woman living in Bangalore, India. She wishes to share the story of how, six years previously, she undertook an impetuous journey that led her to a tiny mountain village in the Himalayas. Here she befriended her reluctant hosts and then inadvertently contributed to the devastation of their already difficult existence. She has thus far maintained her silence about what happened as she believed her urge to speak would make no difference due to the escalating violence in the region. Her need to unburden now is personal.

“lately the urge has turned into something else, something with sharper edges, which sticks under the ribs and makes it dangerous to breathe.”

All stories require a beginning. For the woman, Shalini, the sequence of events being related starts when her mother, in an out of character gesture, permits a travelling salesman to enter their home to pitch his products. Shalini’s mother regularly behaves unpredictably but is adored, and also feared, by her six year old daughter. The salesman, Bashir Ahmed, can somehow cope with the woman’s erratic outbursts and tells the pair a mesmerising tale. He then leaves them with a promise that he will return. His visits, and stories, become a regular and welcome feature in Shalini and her mother’s lives over several years.

Within a few pages the reader learns that, during Shalini’s final year in college, her mother died. Shalini does not cope well with her grief. Realising that she needs to take some sort of action, to stop drifting and treating those around her badly, she makes a spur of the moment decision to journey to Kashmir. Her plan is to find Bashir Ahmed, for reasons she cannot yet fully articulate.

Shalini’s life growing up in Bangalore is one of comfort and privilege, shadowed by the impact of her mother’s behaviour. She has little knowledge of unfolding events in the north of India until she is living within a small community in Kishtwar. They accept the arrival of strangers who are looking for their missing and offer the lone and naive young woman a wary welcome. Shocked by the stories she hears of atrocities, she wishes to help her new friends. In turn they agree to assist in her quest.

The tale moves back and forth between Shalini’s life in Bangalore and the day to day activities in the remote, northern villages where she stays for a time. Her mother’s unpredictable conduct throughout her formative years have left her with a deep seated yearning to belong within an accepting family circle. She can only view what is happening, within and without, through her limited personal lens.

The action unfolds gradually before gaining pace and tension. The joy of reading, however, is in the vivid language and imagery. As an example, the crows, how they become metaphor, is inspired and chilling. Characterisation is subtle and nuanced with development understated yet balanced to perfection. What is slowly revealed is how the effects of individual actions ripple, and how facts are lost in any retelling that is coloured by prejudice. When hurt or damage results, each perpetrator must still find a way to live with themselves. Culpability is kept hidden or downplayed to protect self and public image.

This is beautifully conveyed, evocative writing that presents a shattering tale with rare humanity. The compassion and regret of the narrator will resonate and linger. A breathtaking, unreservedly impressive, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Grove Press.

Book Review: The Unfortunate Englishman

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The Unfortunate Englishman, by John Lawton, is the second book in the author’s Joe Wilderness series. It is a spy thriller set in Europe after the Second World War when the Cold War was at its height. I have not read the first book, Then We Take Berlin, and believe I would have enjoyed this latest instalment more had I done so. There are numerous references to incidents from the first book, character history that may have assisted in my understanding of loyalties and generated more empathy than I was able to muster, particularly for the men.

Spy thrillers are not my usual fare. I enjoy the action and escapism of such stories on screen, although not the sexism. I rarely read the books which inspire the adaptations so was looking forward to perusing this contribution to the genre from an author who garners high regard from respected sources. Having read the book my advice is thus: if this author photograph from the back flap of the book appeals to you then so may the book. I find the placement of the person on the left distasteful. The book is undoubtedly well written, but I like to think that men can be better than the ones who populate its pages.

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The story opens with a shooting in Berlin in 1963. The protagonist, Joe Wilderness, is found beside a woman bleeding out from a gunshot wound and is taken into police custody. His release is facilitated by his former boss and father-in-law, Burne-Jones, on condition he returns to his job in MI6. Joe Wilderness is once again to be a spook, only now he will be required to work behind a desk rather than in the field.

Two characters are then introduced in some detail. One is a Russian spy who is assigned a stolen identity that will enable him to live and work in England. The other is an Englishman who is approached by Burne-Jones and willingly goes undercover to Moscow to steal military secrets. Both are ensnared by their covert alter egos, relishing the life that hides what they really are. Both play a game with lover’s lives leading to the deaths of others which they struggle to confront.

Certain elements of the story are glossed over. Joe Wilderness has a mistress, Nell, as well as a wife. Another character enjoys a ménage à trois. It all felt too much like a male fantasy. Whilst there are feisty and intelligent female characters the men seemed too brutish to empathise with. The plot was captivating but certain characters stereotypically two dimensional.

What I did enjoy was the history, and the asides on class prejudice and social mobility. The action moves between London, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna during the years when they were being remodelled to encompass the political debris created by the outcome of the Second World War. During the coarse of the story the Berlin Wall is put in place and the aims and attitudes of the various government representatives made for good reading.

This is a well constructed tale that fits the mould of spy thrillers I have watched on screen. I would therefore recommend it to fans of the genre. It is a fandom I am unlikely to join.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Grove Press UK.