Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

“This,” announced Richard to the world, in direct defiance of the evidence of his senses, “is not happening.”

Very rarely have I been this anxious to finish a book, write a review and get over it once and for all. This was my first read by Gaiman and it saddens me to say that I was gravely disappointed. The beginning caught my intrigue but towards the middle I found it supremely tedious to be attentive to all the details Gaiman pushed my way. By the 15th chapter or so, I had completely lost my patience and lost hope for a redeeming element which might rescue this story for me. The last five chapters were a struggle to get through.

There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber

“Neverwhere” is a surprisingly boring fantasy novel which follows the protagonist Richard Mayhew who, after an inadvertent act of kindness, is pushed into the realms of London Below – a world cloaked from ordinary eyes where monsters, knights, angels and murderers, earls and noblemen live. Richard along with a bunch of bizarre characters traverse the underground realm, a dimension wholly invisible to those who live in London Above, to acquire a key, exact revenge upon those who killed Lady Door’s family and slay the infamous Beast. Lady Door can magically unlock doors and find doorways where none exist, Hunter is an ancient assassin whose sole purpose of life is to defeat the Beast and the Marquis de Carabas has avowed to protect Lady Door.

Door fixed the earl with her look: there was something more ancient and powerful in that glance than her young years would have seemed to allow

What persistently annoyed me were the shocking off-hand remarks which were casually brushed away or utterly ignored by Richard regarding his ordeal. As a character, Richard was vacuous in his appeal as the protagonist. No heroic value or traces of heroism have been attributed to him, yet by the end he emerges as Warrior of the underground. He wasn’t inquisitive enough to understand what he was experiencing. He remained aloof throughout the adventure which lent him an air of stupidity. Who wouldn’t be more curious as to why they were invisible to residents of London Above once they had been to London Below? He did not inquire after the history of the underground world, how things came to be here, nor did he express more shock at what were clearly surprising, life-altering turn of events.

His mind was too numb to make any sense of where he was, or why he was here, but it was capable of following the rules

I did not care for the trials and tribulations the characters were going through, which by extension implies that I did not care for the characters at all. I wasn’t anxious to find out if Lady Door would be successful in exacting revenge upon the killers, neither did I vouch for Richard to be returned to his previous life. All the characters simply seemed to be caricatures set in a highly fantasised setting. I wasn’t interested in knowing more about the Angel Islington, his history with Atlantis, nor did I find the two mischief makers Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar any more fascinating than a white-washed wall. Had the characters any depth, I might have felt some level of empathy for them in their endeavours. But alas, it was not to be.

He was learning, awkwardly, to trust his instincts, and to realize that the simplest and most likely explanations for what he had seen and experienced recently were the ones that had been offered to him—no matter how unlikely they might seem

The style of imagery was very insipid and even managed to infuriate me at times. Some were positively cringe-worthy. For example “Ruislip, the Fop’s opponent, resembled a bad dream one might have if one fell asleep watching sumo wrestling on the television with a Bob Marley record playing in the background.” And again “The marquis de Carabas tossed the figurine to Mr. Croup, who caught it eagerly, like an addict catching a plastic baggie filled with white powder of dubious legality.” At another instance Gaiman writes “She had a remarkable scream: it could, with no artificial assistance, go through your head like a new power drill with a bone-saw attachment. And amplified . . . It was simply unearthly.” How is a power drill going through one’s skull an “unearthly” experience?

The story left me with too many unanswered questions especially regarding the backstory of how the Underground and all its residents came to be. Why could only Lady Door and her family possess the special powers to unlock doors? Why did the Beasts’ blood give Richard navigational powers? Why was Hunter downed by the beast in one go when throughout the story she was praised for being supremely clever and powerful?

The knowledge was a part of his dreams; it surrounded him, like the darkness. So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come and the moments one was currently disregarding. Still, he was waiting.

By the end, the book left me completely deflated. The world building wasn’t as evocative as I had hoped for, the villains weren’t half as threatening as they were posed to appear, and many plot points and twists were easily decipherable way before they occurred. A horde of characters were introduced only to never be alluded to again and nothing substantial ever happens for me to feel concerned about. Overall, this was a tremendous disappointment and I can’t wait to move on to a better book.


Some nicely crafted sentences:

  • Afterward he remembered only the feeling that he was about to leave somewhere small and rational—a place that made sense—for somewhere huge and old that didn’t
  • A noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them
  • Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once
  • And then they set foot on Night’s Bridge and Richard began to understand darkness: darkness as something solid and real, so much more than a simple absence of light. He felt it touch his skin, questing, moving, exploring: gliding through his mind. It slipped into his lungs, behind his eyes, into his mouth…
  • Old Bailey remembered when people had actually lived here in the City, not just worked; when they had lived and lusted and laughed
  • Violence was the last refuge of the incompetent, and empty threats the final sanctuary of the terminally inept
  • But the most important thing for you to understand is this: all things want to open. You must feel that need, and use it.
  • He felt odd: detached, and depressed, and horribly, strangely saddened

The Secret Lives of Married Women by Elissa Wald

★★★★☆ (4/5)

And yet this happiness didn’t feel the way I’d always imagined it would. It felt fearful and precarious. As if it might be taken from me at any moment.

Contrary to the cover, this book is not erotic fiction. It is an incredibly thrilling ride into lives of two (or three so to speak) ordinary women, who occupy conventional spaces in their lives as wives, mothers, sisters and friends. They are to perfectly balance inner turmoil with adventurous exploits without losing hold of their sense of reality. The two novellas nestled within this one book deal with marital frustrations, anxieties of motherhood, and undisclosed fantasies which are sweetly attainable but would disrupt the quiet order of their lives. Secret yearnings especially of sexual nature can unravel their entire lives at a moments’ whim.

And suddenly from within me came a white-hot answering flash, like oil flung into a hot pan or the silver of a hooked fish catching the sun

This was my first brush with Hard Case Crime series, and much like the appeal of The Dorothy Project, I’m invested owing to the brilliant narration and story arc which kept me hooked. The book cover and title may appear misleading after having read the two entwined stories, but Hard Case Crime publishes stories of classic noir, dealing with adultery, murder, suspicion and sexual deviation. It is reminiscent of old-school paperback which lends the reading experience a tinge of delightful nostalgia.

Would it ever feel safe to savor these things, or would I always be waiting for that knock at the door, the slow whirl of red and blue lights in our driveway, the flash of a badge that would level our lives?

The Man Under the House

I hadn’t realized how much space this belief had occupied until it was suddenly dismantled

The first story revolves around Leda Reeve, a woman whose life has drastically changed since her marriage and subsequent motherhood. As a former libertine, adjusting to newly acquired roles as a wife and a mother seem slightly oppressive. She admits to having married out of mere necessity since she was getting on in age but also confesses to having eventually fallen in love with her husband Stas, a Russian refugee whose past is as undecipherable as hers.

This was something I never would have noticed. I could be close with someone for years and never notice what they drove, beyond a vague sense of its shape and possibly its color. Whereas Stas kept a vehicular inventory of his every casual acquaintance: the brand, the make, the year, how many miles it would get to the gallon

The story starts off with Leda and Stas moving into a new home in Portland, from New York, to settle into a proper house and start their life as a well-adjusted family. The house is in desperate need of repairs which is when Jack, a handyman working on their neighbours’ house, makes himself readily available to come to their disposal. He is eager to identify Leda from the past and presents himself whenever Leda is home alone. Her surreptitious past is at a threat of being disclosed to those she had long veiled her secret from.

Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say I often stopped, that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.

Jack becomes overbearingly intrusive and Leda decides to divulge her secret to her husband Stas. Soon after, Jack disappears and Leda begins to suspect her own husband of a grievous wrong-doing. Her apprehensions alter the nature of their relationship, from distance to intimacy, as she worries about their future together. Her scandalous misgivings make her question her present and future and can only be placated by knowing the truth of her husband’s action.

But when it happens, when you’re truly forced to revise the meaning of the clues you’ve disregarded, there’s no humor in it, only breathlessness and dread

Abel’s Cane

It’s like we’re one person split in two. I got the wildness, the darkness and the artistry. You got the credentials, the integrity and the sense.

Two stories of two different women are burrowed within this one novella which is narrated by Leda’s twin sister Lillian, a high-profile lawyer. She narrates the story of a client Abel and his working relationship with his personal secretary of sorts Nan. Nan was an orphan and brought up in a Convent amidst the stringy but modest and humble values embodied by nuns. As a young woman she became a professional submissive, offering her body for sexual pleasures for dominant men. Her work entails traits of her personality which have always come naturally to her – that of being of service to a man whom she cherishes secret admiration for.

She often felt hollow, transcendent, as if she were pure spirit and the pain was what weighed her to the earth. Other times, in a way that made no sense even to her, she felt hurt and close to tears. She felt pangs of aftershock, arousal, and bewildered grief all at the same time.

Abel Nathanson is a blind, non-profit industrial developer who hires Nan to read legal documents to him. Their relationship is symbiotic and professional but Nan begins to get much more invested in it than Abel who is a happily married man with an adopted child. Nan not only helps him with official work but also gets involved in assisting the Nathanson’s in their household chores. Soon Abel finds himself cornered by a rival developer and the case is bought to Lillian.

Amidst narrating Nan’s story, Lillian recounts her own experiences of a loveless and sexless marriage with Darren. Their inability to have children have left both reclusive in their associations with each other, and the act of copulation is scheduled and perfunctory, devoid of any pleasures. Here Nan and Leda’s past entwine to give Lillian a sense of sexual liberation which she had long ignored deliberately. Abel’s case takes a dark twist resulting in his acquittal and Lillian is reunited with her husband.

Moments like these come suddenly and without warning, adrenaline-driven and past all decision, where no resistance is possible, no sense of propriety can prevail

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve come to believe that intimacy is available to anyone who’s truly ready to give and receive it.

The two stories deal with women and their repression of desires – yearnings of sexual and psychological intimacy – in a patriarchal world. Two kinds of men exist in Elissa Wald’s world, those who nurture their women through providing order in their otherwise chaotic life and those who seek to upset the order primarily through sexual advances. Rae, a close friend of Leda is involuntarily attracted to a man who has done acts of extreme violence in the past and she is more than willing to forego his criminal actions owing to their wonderful sexual chemistry. Same is the case with Nan who is involved in submissive sexual acts with absolutely no regards for her physical integrity. Her relationship with Abel is beautiful and self-destructive at the same time.

After a while, I realized that the aura—an annoying, new-age word but I couldn’t find a better one—around Leda in the movie was something like the aura around Nan: a force field of whole-hearted focus, devotion, self-abandonment. Rapture.

For the reader, these stories may seem to make unlikely heroes of men who rose to an occasion just in time to rescue their women from adversity. But these tales are as much assertive of women who, despite the appeal of adventure and zeal to experience change, hold their moral and social ground.

But I told myself it was better if I went. I needed a visceral and immediate sense of the place, the better to glean the stray and unexpected details that were often the most effective.

This was a quick read with though-provoking substance as well as high entertainment value. Wald keeps our curiosity at bay, holding on to the final reveal till the very end. We anticipate a tragedy but rejoice at narrow escapes. We empathise with the characters and are uncomfortable with their predicaments. The author playfully tightens the reins around her heroines as well as the reader, sometimes relieving us with their happiness and at other times jostling us with shock. An overall engaging book which has made me want to read more from Hard Case Crime series.


More of my favourite lines

Characterisation

  • So far, I wasn’t afraid as much as jittery, skittish; Jack seemed more off-putting and overbearing than truly menacing
  • Until then, I’d thought that Bryce alone created the frisson in the office, but now I understood that Stas supplied an essential part of it as well
  • He was rootless, he could go anywhere.
  • I was elsewhere, on my way to a party. On arrival, everyone was sure to be carrying a piece of the awful world with him. Not one of us wouldn’t be smiling. There’d be drinks, irony, hidden animosities. Something large would be missing. But most of us would understand something large would always be missing.
  • Had the labored breathing of a smoker and his clothes, too, bore the scent of cigarettes.
  • In all the bewilderment, the vertigo, the upended perspective of a funhouse mirror, one lone conviction was still in place: Stas loved Clara
  • Her dark blonde hair, pulled back into an elegant twist and pinned in place with lacquered chopsticks
  • She read as if an oracle might be divined from the document if only it were rendered with enough care
  • It took stamina to plow through page after page, and stoicism not to betray a flicker of fatigue
  • Nearly every evening at this hour, a nameless sadness would threaten her with suffocation
  • In the social arena, so much physical contact relied on visual cues—intentions signaled in advance, consent sought and granted, as one person leaned in and the other bent in reception. Who would dare such an intimate gesture without implicit permission? Not Erica. So often, amidst these exchanges, Abel was set apart, an island—as if blindness warranted a kind of quarantine.
  • There are things too unbearable to think about, memories you can never let float into focus. Nan could barely bring herself to consider that day, and the terrible stilted awkwardness of the ones that followed, where she was unable to meet his sightless gaze and she knew things would never be the same

Beautifully crafted sentences

  • The kitchen faucet sprayed rivulets in all directions. The bathroom door scraped hard against the floor and the lock refused to catch
  • There was at once no time and nothing but time
  • There are three speeds in construction: slow, dead and reverse.
  • Relieved and restored and unburdened and bereft
  • Slavery made them graceful, light on their feet beneath that floor-length cloth, floating like dark swans in their bridal black
  • To waste the slightest amount was a sin against poverty.
  • Deirdre could always be counted upon to draw these lines, lest Nan start to feel like a part of the household.
  • And then, just as quickly, this dark thrill of recognition was displaced by professional assessment
  • The overriding aromas of disinfectant and leather couldn’t fully mask the more pungent ones just beneath: the musk of sweat, the gamy tang of struggle and tension and intensity.
  • As if its violence might be stayed with a show of passion.

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

★★★★★ (5/5)

Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom.

This was an absolutely mesmerizing and compelling read! It narrates a tale of a utopian lamasery concealed within the majestic mountains of the Himalayas, bordering near Tibet. It is a tale of high fantasy, utopian indulgence and pure, unadulterated adventure which has the power to resonate with one’s spiritual and physical existence.

You see, my dear sir, one of the first steps toward the clarifying of the mind is to obtain a panorama of one’s own past, and that, like any other view, is more accurate in perspective

Synopsis

The novel opens in a bachelor’s club where four English gentlemen are meeting for drinks. The conversation stirs to a plane hijacking that had taken place in recent memory and all four men agree that they were acquainted with one of the passengers named Conway. Later, Rutherford, a novelist, discreetly tells our narrator that he happened to meet Conway and was beguiled by his disappearance and subsequent memory loss. Conway had narrated his entire tale of adventure to Rutherford which the latter had transcribed into a manuscript. Rutherford gives our narrator the manuscript to verify Conway’s astonishing story himself.

In 1931, four people are trying to escape political and social unrest in Baskul by boarding a plane which is headed for Peshawar. The passengers include Conway a stoic diplomat, his hot-headed, young secretary Mallinson, Barnard an excitable American and Miss Brinklow, a Christian missionary. The plane is hijacked and crashes in the farthest reaches of Tibetan plateau. Much to their dismay, the four people find themselves trapped and isolated by wilderness of nature, high peaks and strong winds with no trace of civilization for miles.

It was not an ordinary wind. It was not merely a strong wind or a cold wind. It was somehow a frenzy that lived all around them, a master stamping and ranting over his own domain

Soon enough, a group of rescuers come to their aid and take them to the lamasery which is buried between peaks of Karakul. Here, mystery and adventure commence as the four foreigners are unable to deduce as to why the plane was hijacked, if there was a sinister plan behind this or who or for what measures were they kidnapped. But more pressingly, the existence of a sublime building and its small Buddhist community nestled in an unknown and distant piece of land continues to be a conundrum. They are perplexed by tranquillity of its residents and Conway, Barnard and Brinklow pose many questions as to understand this unknown but wonderful world they have stumbled across. Mallinson, however, is keen on getting on their way and remains inquisitive upon the nature of their departure.

There came a time, he realized, when the strangeness of everything made it increasingly difficult to realize the strangeness of anything; when one took things for granted merely because astonishment would have been as tedious for oneself as for others

Conway’s intelligent intrigue in unveiling the secret of this lamasery is not fulfilled until much later into the novel. Would the four of them be able to escape this heaven on earth? This is the prevailing tension underscoring the story, upon which the author builds and heightens the reader’s curiosity. Clandestine nature of the monastery and its residents and Conway’s account of his adventures all tie well with the mysterious ending which leaves upon the reader to deduce its veracity.

It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all

The Lamasery

The peaks had a chill gleam; utterly majestic and remote, their very namelessness had dignity

Hilton delves into painstaking but vivid details of the landscape around the lamasery and sublime beauty of the institute itself. Whilst much of cultural action is done away with, through exquisite scenery we are introduced to the philosophy of monks residing at Shangri-La. Their surroundings have undoubtedly had a profound effect on them, changing course of their lifestyles and even age. Their mental health seems remarkable owing to a deep sense of recollection of old memories they possess.

The lamasery is by no means an ancient building. It is fitted with modern plumbing, a central heating system, a large library, music rooms with piano and food from the fertile valley. The Karakal peaks tower above the establishment, sheltering it from the world but many passes open into the valley which goes to show that drifters and wanderers are always welcome.

We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself

Their religious philosophy “Everything in moderation, even moderation itself” seems to reflect their social and moral grounds of thriving in solitude, away from rest of the civilisation. The magnificence of landscape brings about a certain kind of splendour of isolation. As Conway observes Its atmosphere soothed while its mystery stimulated, and the total sensation was agreeable.”

The air, clean as from another planet, was more precious with every intake. One had to breathe consciously and deliberately, which, though disconcerting at first, induced after a time an almost ecstatic tranquillity of mind

They valley of Shangri-La remains physically and spiritually aloof from the negativity of the rest of the civilised world. Hilton prophecies the Second World War in the monk’ beliefs that a war engulfing vast regions would soon be upon them and amidst such turbulent and miserable times, their valley would remain the beacon of hope and enlightenment, of peace and spiritual prosperity.

“We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. Let us take what pleasure we may until that time comes.”

The monks’ chief preoccupation lies in pursuit of worldly and spiritual wisdom, enabling them to acquire a deeper and more profound understanding of their personal selves. They can be telepathic and absurdly considerate to one’s trials as demonstrated by Chang who rescues the quartet and introduces them to the many facets of the lamasery. When Miss Brinklow vows to convert the monastery’s followers to her own faith, Chang does not disagree with her. Neither does he take offence with Mallison’s impatience and brash remarks on their lifestyle. Their hospitality is unparalleled and so is their level of tolerance as they are all intensely and actively accepting of strangers from far off lands.

The inhabitants of our valley, for instance, feel that it is ‘not done’ to be inhospitable to strangers, to dispute acrimoniously, or to strive for priority amongst one another

This kind of indifference arises not from any destructive intentions but from the realisation of one’s inability to change world affairs in grand scheme of things. This ties in nicely with what the four foreigners try to uncover – why were they selected to stumble across this hidden gem? Was it a chance coincidence or a greater plan lay behind their abduction? Answers to these are given when Conway meets the High Lama, a man of great age and sagacity who explains the institution’s incredible history and who himself is enamoured by Conway’s stoicism.

We believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much

In such placid circumstances, notions of Time radically change. Monks live a carefully deliberated life which Miss Brinklow attributes as sluggish and leisurely. Here the dichotomy of the Western and Eastern world collide, with the former indulged in a race against time and the latter dawdling with time, allowing it to run its own course through fate.

He had suddenly come to realize a single facet of the promised jewel; he had Time, Time for everything that he wished to happen, such Time that desire itself was quenched in the certainty of fulfillment

With alterations in perception of Time come changes brought to the realm of memory. The monks are able to traverse through vast distances of their old lives and recall moments with great exactitude. Atmospheric cleanliness at such an altitude brings about clarity of mind which lends to liberating one’s thoughts of impurity and falsehood.

His memory was astonishing; it appeared to have escaped the trammels of the physical into some upper region of immense clarity

In a very telling conversation Brinklow has with Chang, she inquires as to what the lamas do. “They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom,” he replies. “But that isn’t doing anything,” she retorts to which Chang says “Then, madam, they do nothing.” Here once again, the irreconcilable differences between Western and Eastern philosophy in regards to “doing” manifests itself. The former enjoins practical forms of work, with tangible results usually directed at some form of achievement which can be further invested in either advancing one’s own mercenary ambitions or climbing the social ladder. Eastern philosophy is aimed at experiences, placing value on the inner self. This is personified by the monks and their lifelong quest in search for wisdom through indulging in simplest pleasures of life.

Characters

Much like in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, Hilton has a penchant for drawing his characters with phenomenal detail which is also evident in this novel. All four foreigners are unique in their characterisation, their curiosity in regards to the establishment differs to one another yet compliments their general vocations of life. Their contradictory personalities bring about this tale of adventure to life.

Conway

It was his fate in life to have his equanimity always mistaken for pluck, whereas it was actually something much more dispassionate and much less virile

Conway cherishes a dispassionate and humble life. He is never too zealous about any prospect, nor does he look down upon potential adventure with pessimistic gloom. Out of all four, he perfectly embodies the monks’ philosophy of moderation. From realising that the plane had been hijacked to coming across the lamasery, his intrigue is never fanned by curiosity which seeks to displace the order of things. He allows events to take their own course and in doing so allows himself a similar fluidity. He is tolerant of Mallinson’s consistent anxiety in leaving their refuge and whole-heartedly accepts the hypocrisy of Barnard and Miss Brinklow’s stringent notions.

Mallinson

Mallinson is impudent and impulsive from the very beginning. These character traits can be attributed to his young age but do not fully explain away his persistent displeasure with the establishment. He makes curt remarks about the place despite being well taken care off. His life in England awaits him and he is impatient in resuming it with his fiancée. He is unable to come to terms with reality of what he witnesses, and willingly abstains from indulging in the beauty his circumstance has to offer. Mallinson becomes almost insufferable as the novel progresses, demonising his friends who no longer desire to leave the place.

Barnard

Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of being able to say patronizing things without being offensive

Barnard is an exciting character but lacking in depth of either Conway or Mallison. Later in the novel he is shown to be a master criminal whose grand schemes brought about the downfall of Wall Street. With notice of his extradition issued in many countries, he assumes the new identity to escape imprisonment. He has a friendly disposition towards Conway and others even though Mallinson disregards him occasionally. He too finds solace in the refuge of Karakal and is inclined towards staying back.

It was curious to think of that heavy, fleshy, good-humored, rather paternal-looking man as the world’s hugest swindler

Miss Brinklow

Miss Brinklow’s character portrayal is shorter than the others but owing to her religious background, she assumes an important position. For her, Buddhist practices reflect indolence of mind and body and she avows to stay back in order to convert the residents to her own faith. She resorts to learning the Tibetan language and acutely observing their cultural lifestyle in order to better understand and communicate with them.

Chang

He was rather taken with this latest phenomenon, a Chinese who spoke perfect English and observed the social formalities of Bond Street amidst the wilds of Tibet

Chang is the monk who first receives these four strangers and extends to them an invite to shelter in the lamasery. He is quite secretive in what he uncovers regarding the monastery and its history, never allowing too much information to take over his guests’ uninterrupted curiosity. Yet, he unveils enough for them to be deeply excited about the prospect of staying here for the unforeseen future. He disregards Mallinson’s insults with a light-heartedness that even shames the latter at times and encourages the four of them to discover the riches of the establishment – a library with vast collection of tomes from all corners of the world, the heavily embellished rooms and deep and serene pools, the residents living in the valley and such. He forms an immediate affinity with Conway and recognises his shrewdness in approaching the mystery of Karakul.

The High Lama

On one of these sat a small, pale, and wrinkled person, motionlessly shadowed and yielding an effect as of some fading, antique portrait in chiaroscuro. If there were such a thing as presence divorced from actuality, here it was, adorned with a classic dignity that was more an emanation than an attribute

The High Lama to which only Conway is introduced is an elderly sage. His worldly existence is so old that he has almost faded into his surroundings. It is he from whom Conway learns the astonishing past as to how the lamasery came into existence in this wilderness and solitude. In divulging the secrets to Conway, the High Lama also asks of his loyalty to not speak of these to his friends. The High Lama is telepathic and only after long conversations is Conway able to deduce that he is the founder of this very establishment.

The whispering ceased for a moment, and to Conway, stirring slightly, it appeared that the High Lama had been translating, with fluency, out of a remote and private dream

The High Lama explains the nature and purpose of this lamasery built in such seclusion and details the events which would ultimately ravage the world. Amidst widespread pandemonium, the monastery would emerge solely to disseminate once again hope and wisdom which would have been crushed under lusts of war. He bequeaths to Conway the leadership of running the lamasery after his imminent demise and trusts him to carry on the ancient traditions of acquiring wisdom through solitude and contemplation.

We have no rigidities, no inexorable rules. We do as we think fit, guided a little by the example of the past, but still more by our present wisdom, and by our clairvoyance of the future

A Mystifying Ending

It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality

The ending of the novel confounded me! From the very start it is clear that somehow Conway was able to come back to Chinese civilisation which is where Rutherford meets him. But it is unclear as to what makes Conway finally decide leaving a place he was so at home with. Naturally he seems to be the last of the four to ever walk out on such a heavenly place which suited all his temperaments and present and future ambitions. Yet when Mallinson implores him to escape, after putting up resistance at first, Conway eventually acquiesces.

At one instance, Chang tells Conway that the High Lama usually refrains from meeting newcomers this early on “Because, you see, it is a great strain on him to talk to the average newcomer. The mere presence of human passions is an unwelcome and, at his age, an almost unendurable unpleasantness.” And as soon as the High Lama confers the seat of leadership upon Conway’s shoulders, he passes away. Could it be that owing to High Lama’s telepathic abilities, he was able to envision Conway’s desertion which in one or another is guided by Conway’s admiration for Mallinson? And that, whilst Conway was able to be vastly dispassionate and removed from excitement of life, he cared for the boy too much and ultimately conceded to his demands, and that this passion manifested itself to the High Lama towards the end of his life and he died in its presence? This is surely a far-fetched idea, but upon my reading of the last chapter, this is all I could surmise.

The question of reality, if Conway actually experienced this adventure, is left upon the reader to deduce according to their personal understanding of the story. Had this been a grand flight of imagination, it would not explain Conway’s ability to play the lost pieces of Chopin. Neither would it justify Rutherford’s various findings when he went after Conway. But since Conway gives his account of the story to Rutherford, he can be considered an “unreliable narrator”.

I suppose the truth is that when it comes to believing things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive

Another explication for Conway’s sudden change of mind can be attributed to the moment he discloses the secrets of the lamasery to Mallinson. The High Lama had confided the history and purpose of this establishment to Conway, trusting him to keep this information only to himself (it would be revealed to other three in due time). But in pursuing Mallinson’s change of heart to stay back, Conway reveals the secret thereby breaking the “spell” under which Conway was inextricably linked to this valley.

Concluding Thoughts

This is a story steeped in a mysterious adventure and adorned with the mystical. Reading this book is an experience of sheer loveliness and tranquillity, whereupon the cryptic world is only subtle in its manifestations. Hilton keeps the tension flowing, the reader is keen to know more but not coercive since the world of the lamasery is splendid and fully engrossing. One feels that upon learning the answers to myriad of questions, the spell would be broken which is reflective of the last chapter. It enamours the reader with richness of story-telling and navigating across unknown lands.

This is a highly recommended read for anyone seeking absolute delight of classics!


More of my favourite lines:

Rich Portrayal of Landscape

  • Watch the sunrise upon Everest, he had found the highest mountain in the world a definite disappointment. But this fearsome spectacle beyond the window-pane was of different caliber; it had no air of posing to be admired. There was something raw and monstrous about those uncompromising ice cliffs, and a certain sublime impertinence in approaching them thus
  • While he was still contemplating the scene, twilight fell, steeping the depths in a rich, velvet gloom that spread upwards like a dye. Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky
  • As if the wind were whirling splinters of light out of the stars
  • Magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth
  • Such virgin splendors merely emphasized the facts of isolation and danger
  • Something that had no romantic appeal at all, but a steely, almost an intellectual quality
  • Fringing the pool were posed a brazen menagerie of lions, dragons, and unicorns, each offering a stylized ferocity that emphasized rather than offended the surrounding peace

Characterisation

  • Slight touch of priggishness which I remembered in Wyland Tertius had not diminished with years
  • It was plain that he was reconciling the claims of compatriot courtesy and official rectitude
  • There was something rather Elizabethan about him—his casual versatility, his good looks, that effervescent combination of mental with physical activities
  • But besides all that, he was a man one simply didn’t make mistakes about—to see him once was to know him always
  • He was the sort of man who, being used to major hardships, expected minor comforts by way of compensation
  • It was during such a solitude, with his body sinking and his mind lifted to beatitude, that he had hoped to give up his soul
  • Perrault, if a little beyond such human passions as friendship or affection, was yet endowed with a rich benignity of mind which touched the youth as water upon a parched soil

Conway’s Character

  • There was also in his nature a trait which some people might have called laziness, though it was not quite that. No one was capable of harder work, when it had to be done, and few could better shoulder responsibility; but the facts remained that he was not passionately fond of activity, and did not enjoy responsibility at all
  • He faced facts nonetheless frankly because he did not trouble to enunciate them to the others
  • It was a pleasant prospect, but not one to sigh for in anticipation.
  • His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things
  • There was no doubt of one thing; he would be able to dine out on his yarn for at least a season. But would he enjoy it?
  • To tell his story in the past tense would bore him a great deal as well as sadden him a little
  • He could yield himself to love that was neither a torment nor a bore
  • He narrated rapidly and easily, and in doing so came again under the spell of that strange, timeless world; its beauty overwhelmed him as he spoke of it, and more than once he felt himself reading from a page of memory, so clearly had ideas and phrases impressed themselves

On the Impending War

  • “The whole game’s going to pieces.” Conway found himself remembering and echoing it with a wider significance than the American had probably intended; he felt it to be true of more than American banking and trust-company management. It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government House; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world
  • The loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world
  • I saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy
  • And he perceived that when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air
  • The long talk, with its varying phases, had left him empty of all save a satisfaction that was as much of the mind as of the emotions, and as much of the spirit as of either; even his doubts were now no longer harassing, but part of a subtle harmony
  • Conway remarked with a smile: “I suppose you’re certain, then, that no human affection can outlast a five-year absence?” “It can, undoubtedly,” replied the Chinese, “but only as a fragrance whose melancholy we may enjoy.”
  • There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos
  • But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • There was a quality in the air of Shangri-La— perhaps due to its altitude—that forbade one the effort of counterfeit emotion
  • The savor was slender, elusive, and recondite, a ghostly bouquet that haunted rather than lived on the tongue
  • Emulation is, after all, a young man’s spirit
  • The room was now a whorl of shadows with that ancient benignity at its center
  • Gives one the feeling that Time is like some balked monster, waiting outside the valley to pounce on the slackers who have managed to evade him longer than they should.
  • My friend, it is not an arduous task that I bequeath, for our order knows only silken bonds

Aphorisms

  • Putting up a fight without a decent chance of winning is a poor game
  • One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness
  • Believe me, in arriving here the worst that can have happened is that we’ve exchanged one form of lunacy for another
  • I often think that the Romans were fortunate; their civilization reached as far as hot baths without touching the fatal knowledge of machinery
  • Yet to Conway it did not appear that the Eastern races were abnormally dilatory, but rather that Englishmen and Americans charged about the world in a state of continual and rather preposterous fever heat
  • To the demand of a wise man there is always a response
  • The first quarter-century of your life was doubtless lived under the cloud of being too young for things, while the last quarter-century would normally be shadowed by the still darker cloud of being too old for them; and between those two clouds, what small and narrow sunlight illumines a human lifetime!
  • And, most precious of all, you will have Time—that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it
  • The excitement of love does not make for an easy surrender

Crimson Papers by Harris Khalique

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

There is a war waged against nuance, wit, complexity, subtlety, ambivalence and the very possibility of creating art.

“Crimson Papers” by Harris Khalique is a collection of four essays comprising of the author’s personal mediations on struggle, suffering and creativity in Pakistan. He infuses religion, politics, history and culture of Pakistan to put across an incredibly effective and tolerant viewpoint. His assessments of the country’s chaotic past and turbulent present are shorn of prejudice, biasness and skepticism. The reader can sense kindness in his voice as he tends to explain the present circumstances of Pakistan not through a myopic lens but with a liberal and indulgent tone.

I am conscious of both the isolation that has descended upon Pakistan in the imagination of other nations and the ripping existential stress Pakistan has been experiencing for the longest period of time.

My attempt at reviewing this book leans towards answering the two questions Khalique asks in the Preface “Why must I write about all this? More hauntingly, what difference will it make if any?”

Blood

When it comes to India, Pakistanis are either in love with the idea of a secular India, believing it has already materialized while their own country rots and decomposes, or they consider everything Indian as an open or disguised plot for absolute Hindu ascendancy aimed at destroying the great Pakistani state and its people.

The first essay titled “Blood” deals with issues of national, religious and political identity whilst delving in the history of Partition which brought about two grave problems to grapple with, the creation of Kashmir and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). Innumerable sacrifices made by people of the subcontinent helped their posterity achieve two separate nations on account of differing identities but their martyrdom has gone in largely gone in vain given the present tribulations suffered by minorities on either side of the border.

Or they maintain their belligerent positions on the cold and barren Siachen Glacier, which happens to house the highest military posts in the world, proudly established by two of the poorest countries.

The essay starts off enumerating on the hatred both Pakistanis and Indians harbor for their neighbor. This animosity, perpetuated by the political, military and bureaucratic elite of both countries, has become deeply ingrained in our social psyche so much so that even the most disadvantaged and illiterate of us has strong notions of aversion for the neighboring country. The creation of Kashmir remains to this day the most conflicting matter of international importance, a perpetual threat to peace in South Asia.

Kashmir has become central to peace in South Asia whether that is a reality or not.

The creation of West and East Pakistan in 1947 also multiplied the misery of Pakistanis who were separated with thousands of miles between them, yet linked to the one idea of creation of Pakistan. The issue of language, Urdu or Bangla, became a seed of permanent discord between the two wings of Pakistan. Quaid’s famous speech in Dhaka which emphasized on Urdu being the national language was used by West Pakistanis as a final declaration of superiority of Urdu. Yet, they conveniently forgot that in the same speech Quaid categorically mentioned that each province had the right to choose their official language.

The Bangladeshi state also wishes to subsume small ethnic or political identities in the name of nationalism, like the Pakistani state wishes to subsume all different identities in the name of Islam.

The author elucidates on the plight of ordinary citizens during the ’71 war in which both pro-East and pro-West belligerents wreaked havoc on one another. Merely twenty-four years had passed since the Partition and the subcontinent was once again plummeted into raging fires caused by internal troubles which had been brewing for some time now.

It is shocking that people with such a limited understanding of human society and a warped sense of history have ruled Pakistan with impunity.

The author then links the two wars between Pakistan and India with identity crises experienced by Pakistanis. Military rule coupled with a failing democratic system has given rise to religious and nationalistic extremism. Certain political and social truths must be acknowledged before we, as a nation, can come into harmony with each other’s differences. Tolerance of divergent ideologies is the one value we must all embody in order to make our society more peaceful and accommodating.

But it is more of a cultivated social relationship between the same class of people, who at the same time may be benefiting from the economy of tension, insecurity, jingoism and war.

Sweat

The privileged in our society want everyone to conform.

The second essay “Sweat” traces the struggles and subsequent failures of many socialist movements in Pakistan. The forerunners of progressive ideology might have scattered in vain, their works all but vanished without a trace but their efforts continue to this day be ingrained in present day political discourse. The author was personally acquainted with many of these leaders and through recollection of their names and endeavors, he manages to keep their legacy alive. Humbling stories of Ahmed Bashir who was a government official as well as a social worker, Begum Majeed Malik who was a literary patron and many others elucidate on the nature of those who in troubling times were bold enough to summon progressive ideas and disseminate them among masses.

The only use of writers and filmmakers envisioned by the state was to promote and propagate the narrative of the incumbent government, particularly whenever there was a military ruler in power.

Criticism

Whilst the author has gone to great lengths in mentioning notable as well as discreet names, many references in terms of personalities, their works and general stories evaded me time and time again. Without exploring the struggles of many historic and social persons in detail, the names alluded to in the book remain just that – mere names one can flip through without giving them a second thought. I found myself quite annoyed by the author’s persistent nature of naming someone, describing their work in a mere general statement and going ahead with explaining in length how the author came to know personally the concerned individual. To me this seemed a little too self-indulgent, and even though I have resorted to searching for these names and their struggles, the book leaves me hollow on many occasions. I feel that this runs contrary to what the book aimed for and had the writer given little less space to his personal affiliations and wrote more about the nature of work these incredible people of the past and present were indulged in, the book would be more wholesome and true to its intentions.

Tears

There are physical, emotional, social and economic cogs a person coming the educated and affluent middle class has to bear when deciding to side with and work for the weaker segments of society.

The third essay titled “Tears” accounts for the myriad of sacrifices made by five Pakistani women out of which three had been assassinated, one suffered in prison and the other experienced profound loss of losing her loved ones in a bomb blast. These five narratives are woven within the tapestry of extremism, sectarianism, persecution of minorities, ethnic strife, provincial separatism and the ever shrinking space for intellectual and creative thought.

Internal struggles are waged in the underbelly of this collective journey.

This essay starts with a brilliant metaphor for different classes of Pakistan, all passengers of the same train, undertaking the same journey but segregated on account of their economic, religious and ethnic class. The elite occupy air conditioned parlors of the train whilst the upper and middle class occupy First and Economy class compartments. The lowest class are confined in the constricted and overcrowded bogies, the passengers wrestling one another to find “more elbow room”.

Still they want more leg space to stretch, not just for the body but for the imagination: the agency to reason, the possibility to question, the freedom to comment, and the ability to reject. They harbor the desire to know where this train is headed.

The essay further discusses the problem of bigotry and religious extremism which have wounded this nation from its very roots. Shabana, a singer and dancer from Swat Valley was killed by Taliban after refusing to surrender to their ideologies. Aasiya Noreen belonged to the Christian minority who was sent to jail on charges of blasphemy. Parween Rehman, a social worker helping people transform their lives through physical changes in their surroundings as well as mental and emotional changes in acknowledging their selves, was shot and killed. Sabeen Mahmud, patron of arts and literature and by extension, dissent, was killed as well. Saeeda Bibi of the Hazara community in Balochistan lost her son and son-in-law in a bomb blast which targeted the Shia minority.

How barren Pakistan and its society will become if the contribution of non-Sunnis to the collective civilization, culture, thinking, and sensibility is discounted.

Through these five exemplary women and their sacrifices, the author highlights many of our country’s problems. We are embroiled not only in an external war but an internal battle of intellect and reason. From Taliban’s rise in Pakistan’s north-west to the suppuration of Sunni-Shia conflict, from stifling voices asking for rights for minorities to openly silencing dissenters through “bombs, bullets, petty actions, or caustic words”, intolerance has been on the rise for many years now. General Zia’s era sowed the seeds of discord which to this day have plagued our nation’s quest for advancement and improvement.

There is a cost of speaking for the poor and writing for the oppressed in the face of an omnipotent system where elites and mafias collude to eliminate any difference, leave alone any challenge to their absolute authority.

Contradictory notions of what ideology of Pakistan maintains remains a perpetual thorn in our collective conscience. We are unable to reconcile the idea of an Islamic nation with that of a secular one. Western ideology propagates that Church be separate from the state, but it is inapplicable to our identity, first and foremost as Muslims and then as Pakistani Muslims. History books have long established the fact that concept of Partition grew out of the idea that Muslims and Hindus would not be able to live together once the British left. This evidently renders creation of Pakistan on basis of religion. But from the very beginning, our political and national constitution was based on the one British left behind. This confusion has bred many of the problems our nation faces today. We have allowed reactionary clerics to use religion to advance their own control of the country’s ideologies whilst the politicians have appeased to their every whim in order to maintain their political hegemony. Our leaders are hypocritical in manipulation of nationalistic as well as religious fervor, steering the masses from one end to another, which has resulted in widespread discontentment and confusion.

Criticism

The author says:

The elite perpetuate. In many other countries, the elite, even with all its contempt for the lumpen, would lead and take others along in the wagons behind them and know where they all are going. In Pakistan, the elite remain indifferent.

I somehow disagree with this statement since it takes a very xenocentric stance. The poor languish in misery everywhere in the world, irrespective of the economic status the country enjoys. Hunger is hunger, disease is disease no matter where one resides. Similarly, the Wall Street elite of USA are no different in their mercenary motivations than the political elite of Pakistan in their power-wielding incentives. Granted on surface, one controls the economy and the other has hold of a nation’s political structure, but politics and economy are inextricably linked. The innate nature of greed and self-interest knows no geographical boundaries nor identifies one’s color. Evil is evil, its indifference to humanity similar in all forms.

Ink

As events impact nations, words impact individuals.

The fourth and last essay of the book is aptly titled “Ink” in which the author delves into the creative spirit of Pakistani poets and writers who have upheld the truest philosophy of social and political dynamics of Pakistan. Khalique mentions different creators whose works have imbibed nature of revolution, stirring emotions in their listeners and readers. Where politics and bureaucracy failed, arts and literature held the reins of social sanity, drawing in people from all fields of life to unite in their vision and perspective. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal, Qurutulain Haider, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sarmad Sehbai, Fahmida Riaz and Munir Niazi are just some of the names he mentions who have been pioneers of literary enlightenment in the subcontinent.

Art has the power to subvert and the power to heal, sometimes separately and sometimes collectively.

The essay starts off with the duality of language that harasses our understanding of what it means to be a Pakistani. Urdu is our mother tongue but widespread usage of English, especially in official context, has lent disorder to our society. This mayhem is further proliferated on grounds of provincialism and anti-Western sentiments. Whilst the author acknowledges that “English is the language that brings power, prosperity, privilege, and prestige” he also notes that “selective promotion of English is not directed at culturally modernizing Pakistan and expediting its intellectual development…but it is there to ensure the exclusion of the majority of people from participating in making decisions that affect their lives.”

Next the author offers his opinion on the perennial debate of prose versus poetry and which genre best epitomizes consciousness and is truest to life and nature. For Khalique, the premise of this argument is moot since art as a whole “functions as a free-floating signified. Utilitarian motives kill it. Art is feared because it is subversive.” Thus to differentiate and categorize art in order of objectivity is ridiculous. He advocates the genre of poetry as being as dominant and effective as prose.

Poetry is wonder and power structures evaporate in the wonderment of poetry.

Many critics of poetry are of the opinion that this genre largely falls short of providing rational tools for struggle. It may evoke and stir, induce people to action but its maximum potential is reached merely with raising slogans. Khalique defends poetry and offers to not relegate it under prose since “both are equally important to understand nature, humanity, society, and our collective perpetual quest for a more meaningful existence.” Each genre has its own subjective manifestations of thought and expression where brevity and elucidation are both necessary for critical thinking.

Concluding Thoughts

It is because of art and creativity in Pakistan that hope refuses to sink in the deluge of sorrow.

To the question Khalique asks in the Preface regarding what difference this book can make, I have a simple answer. The author’s kind consideration with which he deals with sensitive matters without making anyone a scapegoat or vilifying opposing thoughts is a lesson to be learnt in exercising opinion-formation. Although I did not agree with a few of his statements, they did not offend me. Rather, they invited me to contemplate on their nature. And even though the writer did not indulge in the efforts made by many personalities mentioned in the book, I am now aware of their names on which I can research on my own time.


Aphorisms and Quotes

(Some quotes are paraphrased)

  • We live in an age where fiction is written in haste and sold in abundance
  • The idea of any country is as worthwhile as its citizens consider it to be. Being part of a state is about consensus while citizenship is about belonging.
  • “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.” – Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot
  • Putting anger into context can make you sympathize with the one who is angry.
  • “A myth cannot be challenged once the majority begins to accept it as the eternal truth.” – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad
  • Even if the atrocities were much smaller in magnitude…the truth has to be established.
  • I am one of those who subscribe to the idea that battles can be won and lost, but no one wins or loses a war.
  • It is detrimental to the emotional and intellectual development of any society if it decides to look the other way, or become selective with facts.
  • In any person, character is more important than ideology.
  • The desire for power and domination can make bedfellows out of strangers.
  • “Power, to be effective, must inscribe itself on the senses” – Terry Eagleton
  • “It is highly rational for a nation always in a state of war to elect combatants as its leaders.” – David Grossman. The fact that combatants are the nation’s leaders decrees that the nation remains in a constant state of war.
  • “Mediocrity is promoted by creating a ‘conspiracy of noise’ in its favor and genius is suppressed by hatching a ‘conspiracy of silence’ against it.” – Jean Cocteau

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

★★★★★ (5/5)

“A friend is a present you give yourself.”

Crazy, uplifting, heart-warming and an absolutely exquisite read. Matthew Quick’s “The Good Luck of Right Now” is a story full of oddities but at the heart of it lies compassion and warmth. This epistolary novel doubles as an entertaining as well as a profound read on the human condition – how the most insignificant of us are blessed with a spirit of creativity and reason and in the harshest of circumstances can summon will to alter lives for better.

We don’t know anything. But we can choose how we respond to whatever comes our way. We have a choice always. Remember that!

Bartholomew Neil, our quirky protagonist, has spent thirty-eight years with his mother, tending and caring for her in sickness which ailed her towards the end. After her death, Bartholomew is left alone in an emotionally distant world. He begins to compose letters to Richard Gere, her mother’s favourite actor, believing the actor to be of some help to him. Through the course of these letters, Bartholomew tries to explain his humble situation with references to causes near and dear to Mr. Gere’s heart such as the “Free Tibet” movement.

Sometimes I worry that I just don’t believe enough in any one thing to make a significant contribution to the world

Soon after the mother’s death, Father McNamee, an old family friend and the mother’s closest confidante moves in with Bartholomew. The priest defrocks himself and traverses on a mission to converse with God on his own. Father McNamee comes with his own emotional baggage and identity trials and soon we learn that he is bipolar. Bartholomew’s counsellor Wendy is against this co-dependency and arranges therapeutic sessions for Bartholomew with another counsellor Arnie. Wendy too, much like all the other characters, comes with her own dark story.

If he were a house, one of the windows would have been smashed and the door would have been ajar. It was like he had been broken into and robbed

At these sessions, Bartholomew makes acquaintance of Max who mourns the loss of his cat Alice. He uses expletives in abundance but in a harmless and charming way. Max happens to be the brother of The Girlbrarian, a girl working at the local library with whom Bartholomew had been smitten by for the longest time but was unable to muster enough courage to talk to. This happens to be one of the many happy coincidences our protagonist identifies as a result of his mother’s death and his attempts at gathering his life together. Max and his sister Elizabeth are embroiled in their own eccentricities, believing in alien abduction and wearing amulets to ward off alien creatures.

And what is reality, if it isn’t how we feel about things? What else matters at the end of the day when we lie in bed alone with our thoughts?

Soon the four of them, Bartholomew, the priest, Max and his sister make a trip to Canada, the former duo in order to meet Bartholomew’s real father and the latter wanting to visit Cat Parliament. Bartholomew meets another tragedy and a sudden realisation of the truth whilst the two siblings are able to fulfil their own goals. Their companionship helps heal old wounds amidst all the uncertainty life throws at them.

Beyond the everyday ins and outs of our lives, there is a greater purpose—a reason

All these characters are profusely damaged and may appear “not normal”. Bartholomew and Max live in an illusory world unable to fend for themselves, Father McNamee becomes a drunkard, Wendy is subjected to domestic violence, and Elizabeth lives an elaborate lie. Amidst all this peculiarity, all the characters share a common goodness of heart which helps not only themselves in surviving this unforgiving world but also assists in forging unbreakable ties with each other. Bartholomew is eager to learn and move on with his life. Father McNamee despite his bipolarity seeks a journey towards and a defining answer from God. Not even his illness is able to sway him from his faith. Max has a massive heart and cherishes an innocent desire and Elizabeth plays along with her older brother’s idiosyncrasies.

I wanted to be with Elizabeth—just to sit next to her silently for another five minutes would have been divine. I also wanted to be by myself too, which was confusing.

The alliances these incongruous characters establish are based on mutual respect for each other’s belief’s and personalities. They are incredibly kind and resourceful, accommodating each other’s follies and whims without a second thought. This is why Bartholomew lets the priest stay over and even offers his house as a refuge for Wendy. This ties up with the ending in which Bartholomew extends the invitation to the two siblings who had been evicted prior to their journey to Canada.

Your appearing to me is just another koan, something to ponder deeply but never answer or solve. The universe hiccups, and we poor fools try to figure out why

The epistolary nature of the story lends it a dream-like quality. Bartholomew maintains one-sided communication with Richard Gere the actor, believing him to be reading his dispatches and offering assistance by appearing in front of Bartholomew whenever he is in trouble or is unable to form his own view of a social situation. References to the Dalai Lama and Buddhist concepts of kindness and altruism help Bartholomew create his own world view.

Pray that your heart will be able to endure whatever happens to you in the future—your heart must continue to believe that the events in this world are not the be-all and end-all but simply transient unimportant variables

With humanity and gentleness at the very core of this story, “The Good Luck of Right Now” evokes feelings of tranquillity amidst the chaos of this world. For many readers, it can even be inspiring in terms of making sense of the disorder. The adage “good luck of right now” more or less can be held similar to “everything happens for a reason”. The Mother’s death snowballs Bartholomew’s life in a series of wonderful and sometimes unfortunate chance occurrences which ultimately enable him to get on with his life despite his autistic condition.

You cannot beat time; you can only enjoy it whenever possible, as it zooms by endlessly.

This is a highly recommended read for anyone seeking a light-hearted and cheery inspiration. It was an honour and absolute delight to know these remarkable characters.


My Favourite Lines

Characterisation

  • She smelled like the mothballs she kept in her drawers and closet
  • “Mmmmmmmmm,” he finally said, or rather he moaned. The noise seemed to bubble up from deep within him like a monstrous belch that had been waiting a long time for the opportune moment to explode.
  • His forearms were thick and he had a great belly, but he was solid all over and not jiggly like a fat man
  • The bruise on her wrist jumped out of her sleeve once more, ugly as a cockroach emerging from under a floorboard
  • I remembered Father McNamee’s eyes sucking at me like whirlpools
  • His yellow teeth looked like petrified pieces of corn, and the way he was looking at me made the wrinkles in his face appear deeper than usual—so cavernous, I wondered if he had to clean them with a Q-tip
  • Her voice was . . . reluctant and damaged and beautiful and maybe like a bird with a broken wing singing unfettered all alone in the wilderness when she thinks no one is listening
  • It was like she was maybe making a wish and sealing it with a double blink—or at least that’s what I imagined
  • Our new therapist, whose name is Dr. Hanson—she’s a tiny lady whose ballerina bun doubles as a pincushion for writing utensils

Funny Instances

  • It was as if giant invisible scissors had cut all of her lively dancing marionette strings
  • A giant pink elephant had filled the room and was crushing us against the walls, making it increasingly difficult to breathe
  • Like maybe some secret division of the government had worked out an equation for people’s lives—like you just plug in the variables of your existence and you get the guaranteed outcome
  • “What? Why?” I said. “My father is really alive? You’ve been in touch with him? There’s a preserved human heart on display?”

Misc.

  • “Richard?” Mom whispered to me on the night she died. That’s all. One. Single. Word. Richard? The question mark was audible. The question mark haunts me. The question mark made me believe that her whole life could be summed up by punctuation.
  • I get sidetracked easily by interesting things, and for this reason, people often find it hard to converse with me, which is why I don’t talk very much to strangers and much prefer writing letters, in which there is room to record everything, unlike real-life conversations where you have to fight and fight to fit in your words and almost always lose.
  • She actually used that word. Sentimental. As if it were a character flaw. Like it was horrible to feel. To admit that you missed things. To care. To love even.
  • I stood in the hallway for a time, wondering why—after spending the entire day with three people—I felt so much lonelier than I had ever before in my entire life
  • I was partly nervous to meet my biological father, but the larger part of me thought that my meeting him was completely impossible, and so I wasn’t all that nervous, because how can you fear impossibility?
  • How could I be angry with a man I’d never met?
  • She picked the right side of the bed, so I hugged the left edge all night long