Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bridging the Distance

Though I grew up in an Indian home, with a heavy dose of Indian culture, I was born and raised outside India. As a result, writing about that country sometimes makes me feel like a fraud. I’ve worked hard to overcome that insecurity, but it doesn’t mean I keep an open mind about non-Indians who write fiction set there. I mean, come on!

That's why when Life of Pi was climbing the bestseller lists then parked there for months on end, I didn’t even consider reading it. Not even when the novel won the esteemed Mann Booker prize in 2002. After all, Yann Martel is Canadian, and the first part of his book is set at a zoo in Chennai. Moreover, it’s about a boy and a tiger stuck on a long boat ride together. Doesn’t sound very realistic, but what could a native Canadian write about a complex city like old Madras?

Then a friend called to gush about it. A must read, it seemed. And when I did read it, well, it blew me away. I knew from the get-go that the author did his research, because page one starts in Matheran, a small, little-known hill station, essentially a mountain resort town, just outside Mumbai. That the author worked this sort of obscure setting into his intro impressed me, kept me reading, later, about zoo life in Chennai, and cleaning out lion cages and feeding the monkeys. I was transfixed. The book also has one of the most stunning endings you’ll ever read.

A few years later, I was excited to pick up a crime author writing about an Indian theme. Karin Fossum, Norway’s “queen of crime,” has written 14 novels, of which 10 fall under the Inspector Sejer crime series.
Her fourth Inspector Sejer novel, aptly named The Indian Bride, takes on the premise of the first Indian immigrant to a small Norwegian community. Since I’m not very familiar with Norwegian culture, I wanted to see how she melded the two cultural themes together, one I am familiar with, the other I’m not.

Fossum begins her tale from the point of view of two characters—Gundar and his sister—whose lives are about to change drastically, then later from Inspector Sejer’s viewpoint as he investigates a bewildering, ghastly crime that the community that doesn't believe any of its citizens could have committed.

Simple Gunder Jomann, who sells farm equipment in his sleepy rural town on the coast of Norway, is a lonely, middle-aged bachelor who spends much of his time daydreaming about his future wife, wondering when and where he’ll meet her. He knows everyone around, so there aren’t any opportunities for him to meet women, and the ones who know him just aren’t interested. After browsing through a travel magazine about India, he admires the lovely women with the big dark eyes and elegant saris who grace its pages. It occurs to him there are probably plenty of lovely, eligible women in the hugely populous country who would be interested in marrying someone like him, a good person with a steady job and a comfortable home. And so, to the chagrin of his concerned younger sister, Gunder prepares to take his first trip outside of Norway to find a bride in India, even shopping for a diamond ring before he leaves. Once in India, we experience all the chaos of Mumbai through Gundar. Before long, he meets and marries Poona. (Wait’ll you read how he finds her!) He returns to Norway alone, informs his very worried sister that he’s now a married man, then prepares to welcome his young bride to her new home.

But when Poona is due to arrive at the airport, Gunder’s sister meets with  a horrible car accident and Gunder has to send someone else to pick up his new wife. Only problem is, she’s not there. Not long after, the badly beaten corpse, that of a woman, is found elsewhere in town. Coincidence? That’s when Inspector Sejer is called in to investigate.

I won’t tell you more—finding out where this all leads is highly compelling, one of the strongest portions of the book. (And don’t read the reviews—there are a lot of spoilers out there!)

The book is relatively small, quiet, and satisfying. Fossum kept me turning the pages but not so fast that I couldn't get to know these well-drawn characters and enjoy the growing psychological suspense along with the whodunit factor. The character development is strong, subtle, and packs an emotional punch.

As Publisher’s Weekly commented in its starred review of The Indian Bride:
“Fossum may not be well-known outside a select circle, but that could change with the publication of this outstanding contemporary police procedural…. The ending is not one most readers will expect, but it perfectly suits the tale of sad, little lives and the tragic consequences of chance.”

Well put.

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