"I Exist. Therefore I Am" by Shirani Rajapakse

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While reading I Exist. Therefore I Am, I had the sensation of being submerged. I felt trapped deep an endless sea, with no hope of seeing the surface. Author Shirani Rajapakse’s stories of women in modern India has the effect of burying all hope for these females, these second-class citizens. While it is an oppressing collection, it was clearly designed to be so; while its function is to expose and obliquely denounce, its variety does nothing but strengthen and reinforce its message.

Ms. Rajapakse leads off the collection with “Drink Your Milk and Go to Sleep,” and establishes right away the grisly and hopeless tenor of the series. A unfortunate woman has married into a family suffering from the superstitions typical of certain classes of Indian society. So her new family inevitably finds her culpable when she gives birth to female children. This young mother resorts to her only recourse after so many births of the wrong sex again and again. It’s shocking and horrifying.

“Shweta’s Journey” recounts a modern young woman’s descent into household servitude and enslavement at the hands of a purported religious leader. Her naïveté plunges her into this self-obliterating hell; her fear for her life keeps her there.

Even women who have passed a long, satisfying life with family and spouse have an expiration date, apparently. In “Death Row,” Ms Rajapakse recounts the slow, tortuous journey to death of many older widows whose families no longer want them. It matches the bleakness of these women’s spirits with the bleak conditions in which they are forced to live out their days.

The title story features the plaints and exhortations of developing female fetus, and are thus simply inaudible. It echos the heartache of the first story and reflects the devastated lives of so many of India’s women.

Current cultural and religious conflicts have their airing here: young carefree women who have been kidnapped and subjugated into wives by Muslim men hold no hope of ever being rescued, and scant idea of even being missed. This sad state distills the sad theme of the collection into one brief story.

There are ghastly crimes in these pages; there are hopeless laments; each tells a different aspect of the complete pulverization of the female character in India. The author has followed up her award-winning poetry collection, “Chant of a Million Women” with an alarming and sensational collection of short fiction calling attention to the plight of women in India. Pick it up; prepare to be educated and appalled.

"Where My Heart Used to Beat" by Sebastian Faulks

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Sebastian Faulks presents a book-length confessional of a man alienated from his own feelings in Where My Heart Used to Beat. Robert Hendricks grows up in England, having lost his father in the Great War. His mother refuses to talk about his father, saying it would be “too painful.” Hendricks’s life becomes painful in its turn, too, and through a physician’s knowledge of symptoms, and the self’s absorption with its own history, he tries to get some sort of closure on the pain.

Born during the cataclysm of World War I, Robert grows up with his mother, reads incessantly, has a very active imagination and desire to read, and eventually goes to university. His degree in medicine assures his installation as an officer in a celebrated British Army regiment for World War II. He serves with distinction in Dunkirk, North Africa, and Anzio. It is the fraught and frustrating Italian that seems to do in his mental state. While recuperating from wounds, he falls in love with a comely Italian woman, who proves to be the love of his life.

Hendricks tells these episodes late in his life to an elderly doctor on an island off the south coast of France. These conversations amount to an extended therapy session where Hendricks is encouraged to unburden himself. Talk ranges far and wide. The older doctor admires the book that Hendricks wrote in the 1960s, about mad people, and how they could best be supported, because curing them seems beyond the reach of the medical community. 

I read of this Hendricks, of his problems and doubts, but nowhere along the way did he engage my sympathies. He is a fine fellow, stalwart with his comrades at war and caring   with his patients as a doctor. But the purported alienation he feels, his inability to find comfort or a happy ending … I missed the part that would have made me feel these in my viscera. That may not have been Mr. Faulks’s point, but in a novel of this kind - a highly personal journey in search of comfort or love or support - it certainly seems like it has to have been.

This novel is quite vivid in its descriptions of the British experience in World War II. Its philosophical asides - spoken by our first-person Dr. Hendricks - about the violent worldwide paroxysms of the 20th Century, and how they become embedded on an individual’s soul, are undoubtedly strong. These supports deserve a clearer and more forceful main plot, I felt.

"Sweet Lamb of Heaven" by Lydia Millet

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Lydia Millet has captured something in Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and I feel at the very end of my abilities to say what it is. This Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel captures in frightening detail the horrifying political world we live in today - this example deals with the American version. This novel will haunt you, and stretch your imagination, and scare you, in an Alfred Hitchcock mode. It’s challenging, head-turning stuff. Supremely rewarding.

Anna, a sometime college lecturer in languages and literature, takes her six year-old daughter Lena and flees her emotionally-remote husband. (The husband is so remote, in fact, that midway through the story Anna checks off a long list of characteristics, and decides he is sociopathic. It doesn’t take the reader that long to figure it out.) We learn from the outset that after her daughter was born Anna had hallucinations - I don’t say “suffered” because the term doesn’t fit. She hears voices speaking to her. The voice seems versed in a wide range of subjects: “single-cell organisms, hockey scores, feathers on dinosaurs, celebrity suicides, the pattern of Pleistocene extinctions, the fate of the tribe called the Nez Perce; relativity, particle accelerators,” and so on. It speaks to Anna in English, Spanish, and French. Anna also thinks she hears English that sounds like Shakespeare, and Middle English, which she encountered while reading Chaucer.

And it is this breadth of the voice, in subject matter, language, and temporal origin, that is the key for me. It supports Anna’s fellow “listeners,” a group of people who have also had the auditory hallucinations, which we meet at a motel on the rocky coast of Maine - the end of the earth. The one salient opinion to emerge from the motley crew is that the voices have something in common with a common subconscious, a language which is the foundation of all life on earth. 

Lay on top of these metaphysical considerations the thread of Anna’s cold, repellant husband. He uses his over-the-top charisma and ingratiating acting ability to start a career in politics. He corners Anna in Maine, coerces her back to Alaska to appear as part of his campaign for state senate, all the while having coopted the “family” agenda of a reactionary political party. After getting her back “on board” for photo ops and meet-and-greets, he sends her emails with each day’s appointments, bullet points of opinions to express if pressed; Anna and her daughter have daily sessions for makeup and clothes.

And thus is the shallowness and venality of modern-day politics exposed to us. Estranged husband Ned despises Anna, but hauls her up before cameras and microphones during his campaign. He threatens her and treats his daughter as though she doesn’t exist - and then the real fun starts. In a few jarring pages, Anna hallucinates something very strange indeed. She watches herself age before her eyes: terrified at the pace of her growing hair and nails, she emerges from her bath to see Lena and a trusted friend still seated on a hotel bed, reading, where she just left them. The sequence abruptly turns to a midsummer festival in Anna’s home town, and she has apparently lost three months, just like that. She has been in an altered state the whole time and cannot remember any of it.

Thus through strong drugs and an outwardly orthodox relationship, does Ned control and attempt to ruin Anna’s life. This Hitchcockian episode illustrates the very real and ruthless impulse of those who would control speech and discourse to their own ends and agendas. Ms. Millet takes it further: the totalitarians would control or even exterminate not only the public policy discussion, but would ruin language of any and all kinds. There is grist here for a much more in-depth treatment, which I promised to try to grind to fine flour at some point in the near future.

Suffice it at current to say that any modern reader interested in communication, politics, sensory perception, or theories of language would be challenged and delighted with this book. It’s also a damn fine read: something sinister’s always lurking near the surface; a group of friends and supporters are a particularly motley crew and we can’t be sure they’re reliable. Anna lives a desperate existence on the margin, and sometimes has reason to doubt her own stability. It seems unlikely that you’ll be as confounded as I was by Sweet Lamb of Heaven. I recommend you go ahead and try to find out.