In a swirl of university work, short stories and a new job, I have missed one week and thus appear to have forgotten how to write book reviews. Ah well. Let’s a have a go.
I discovered Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) through my MA course, but it’s one of those books that was a joy to be forced to read. I’m not sure I would have chosen to read it from the cover; I have a bad tendency of sticking to what I know, of reading literature with a familiar setting, of reading books about books and people who love books. A book that seems to feature a man-eating tiger, several dolphins, and an entirely unfamiliar environment would not necessarily be my first choice, which is probably a mistake of mine. I’m very glad somebody told me to read The Hungry Tide. It’s a good read.
The Hungry Tide is what I might call a triple narrative. It tells the story of the Sundarbans of India, a tide country were villages lie on islands in the midst of rivers and jungles. The story begins with two outsiders arriving here. Kanai Dutt, a Delhi businessman, comes to the tide country at the request of his aunt Nilimia, in order to look over the notebooks his late uncle left behind him. Piya Roy, an American marine biologist of Indian heritage, comes for the dolphins. The notebooks of Kanai’s uncle give us yet another story, that of him, his interest in another village, and the difficult life of Kanai’s childhood friend Kusum. I love the way in which these narratives intersect each other, with Piya and Kanai’s stories overlapping and weaving into one another.
It is a book full of lengthy description, and the prose can be at times a little wordy, but overall this didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the novel particularly. Likewise there are a few moments that blend memory and present action to a confusing degree, especially when Kanai first arrives in Lusibari, but perhaps this simply adds to the general nostalgic tone.
I didn’t exactly like Piya and Kanai, the two central characters. Yet, as with Sophie Coulombeau’s Rites, there was something brilliantly effective and complex about this. In Chapter One you immediately and naturally warm to Kanai and Piya, only to slowly find yourself growing suspicious of both of them. However, even if you don’t like them, you do find them human – or at least I did. They are neither all good nor all bad. Both have muddled priorities and deep and at times unpleasant complexities. I’m not sure I’d get on with either as people in real life – but to even think this means I feel fairly convinced by their depth as characters. They feel real. I’m still unsure how to respond to Nilimia, but perhaps only as you sometimes don’t quite know how to read an individual in real life. Fokir and Kusum are probably the characters that more intrigued me, and I do rather wish we had been able to see from Fokir’s perspective at some point. However, perhaps his enigmatic nature is what exactly makes him a fascinating and effective character.
The landscape within which The Hungry Tide is set is both incredible and incredibly realised. The power of this place is better put across in Ghosh’s words than mine:
Although there were many other islands nearby, Lusibari was cut off from these by four encircling rivers. Of these rivers two were of medium size, while the third was so modest as almost to melt into the mud at low tide. But the pointed end of the island – the narrowest spiral of the conch – jutted into a river that was one of the mightiest in the tide country, the Raimangal.
Seen from Lushibari at high tide, the Raimangal did not look like a river at all: it looked more like a limb od the sea… At low tide the mouths of the other river were clearly visible in the distance – gigantic portals piercing the ring of green galleries than encircled the mohona. But Kanai knew that once the tide turned everything would disappear: the rising waters of the mohona would swallow up the jungle as well as the rivers.
It is such an incredible place to set a novel, and both this and the plot give the novel a solid premise. The skill of the writing and the elegance and poignancy of the idea is what to me made this book stand out. It’s the sort of book that makes you want you want to read on – and makes you think.
Greatest strength: The subtly complexity of the characters – and the enchanting and brilliantly rich place in which the story is set.
Greatest weakness: I don’t have many complaints of this novel, although I possibly would have liked to see a little more from Fokir’s perspective. He remains a bit of an enigma throughout, and although I suppose that is the point, it does seem a shame.
Let’s finish on a quote: To me, a townsman, the tide country’s jungle was an emptiness, a place where time stood still. I saw now that this was an illusion, that the exact opposite was true. What was happening here, I realised, was that the wheel of time was spinning too fast to be seen.
Next week: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, by Jon McGregor