I had been looking forward to reading this book for weeks before I actually got the chance to pick it up. This debut novel was even featured in my “21 books I am excited about” post! And I’m so glad I picked it up… It was yet another 5-star read for me!
Title: The Far Field
Author: Madhuri Vijay
Genre: adult fiction, contemporary
Published on January 15th, 2019 by Grove Atlantic
Page count: 448 pages
s y n o p s i s
In the wake of her mother’s death, Shalini, a privileged and restless young woman from Bangalore, sets out for a remote Himalayan village in the troubled northern region of Kashmir. Certain that the loss of her mother is somehow connected to the decade-old disappearance of Bashir Ahmed, a charming Kashmir salesman who frequented her childhood home, she is determined to confront him. But upon her arrival, Shalini is brought face to face with Kashmir’s politics, as well as the tangled history of the local family that takes her in. And when life in the village turns volatile, old hatreds threaten to erupt into violence.
Disclaimer: I was sent a review copy of The Far Field by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and unbiased. This is a spoiler-free review.
I have no doubts that this lovely debut novel has been one of the best I have ever read. There are so many things I loved about it and I know those will stay with me for a long time. If I had to describe it in just a few words, I’d call The Far Field bitterly beautiful. Here are the main things that made me love Madhuri Vijay’s debut so much…
🌻 The (shifting) narrating voice
The first thing that made me hooked to this book was how the narrator, Shalini, introduced the story. The first sentence reads: “I am thirty years old and that is nothing.” Then, she goes on to note that the story she is going to tell unfolded a few years ago, but she has never told it to anyone. From the first pages, we can clearly tell that Shalini is hurting, and that hurt stems from her inability to tell the story to those who matter around her.
From here, Shalini narrates the entire story of what happened up north, in the Kashmir valley (an area in India near the border with Pakistan) by intertwining two different times and, therefore, stories.
Some sections are Shalini’s recollections of her mother’s encounters with Bashir Ahmed, a traveling salesman from Kashmir. When she looks back at these memories, we get a precious glimpse into how life was for young Shalini, her troubled mother, and this kind man who is a great storyteller with a massive heart. Other sections (the majority of them) are a present-tense account of Shalini’s trip to Kashmir.
I found the juxtaposition of the two tenses and stories beautiful. We under what drives Shalini to carry on with her journey, even when it looks like it will end in disaster. The fact that this was done in a show-not-tell way made me even happier with the novel, and I have to give full credit to the writer.
🌻 Stunning writing style
I love it when a book has such beautiful writing that I can’t help but highlight it. And that happened a lot with this book! The author did such a great job crafting stunning sentences and intertwining them with the actual story. It added a whole new level to the story and, at times, I felt like I was listening to a very wise person tell me a sad story of regret and heartache.
“She and Abdul Latief gazed at each other, their expressions sad and tender, and, for a moment, the full force of their loss blew through the room like a cold wind.”
🌻 Tumultuous relationships
A lot of this book focuses on Shalini’s relationship with other people. The one most prominently analyzed is that of Shalini and her mother. To say that they had a complicated relationship is an understatement. There is a viciousness, long of affection, and toxicity to their mother-daughter relationship. And that was lovely to read about. This is perhaps best felt at every mention of Shalini’s pet name given to her by her mother: little beast. Complicated relationships can be described in a very nerve-wracking manner, but Vijay perfectly captured what it feels like to have a mother who is mysterious and on whom you cannot rely.
How Shalini sees her father and how they get along is also something the author explores in this novel. They, too, haven’t had the easiest of relationships, especially not since Shalini’s mother has passed away. Father and daughter are no longer close and act very aloof around each other, barely interacting unless they need to.
“It’s so hard not to wonder how much might have been prevented if only I had loved him more, or, perhaps, loved her a little less. But that is useless thinking, and perilous. Better to let things stand as they were: she, my incandescent mother, and I, her little beast.”
There are so many more relationships, but I won’t go into them. In the end, every single person Shalini meets—whether at home, in Bangalore, or in Kashmir—develops an odd and somewhat painful relationship with her. No connection is really satisfactory, although they all go through good and bad moments. This adds complexity to the character of Shalini and also to the climate of the story that I loved to bits.
🌻 The importance of privilege
As the official synopsis of this novel states, Shalini is a privileged woman from Bangalore who has a good life, generally speaking. Her father is an important businessman who brings home a comfortable amount of money. We see just how well this family lives, in the grand scheme of things, through Shalini’s actions. She has a job she doesn’t really enjoy but decides to stick around because she feels like she has to emotionally, not because she needs the money. Shalini decides to travel up north without much planning and has the means to. She goes through life in a careless, adolescent way without paying much attention to much around her. And, most importantly, neither she or her family has ever had to live with war.
So what happens when a woman who has had every comfort in her life arrives at an area where poverty is commonplace and is at the brink of civil war? As you can imagine from your own view of the word, and as Shalini hints at in the first chapter, the result isn’t good.
Her privilege is one of the main reasons why tragedy seems to unfold wherever she travels to. She has no experience of being in the minority, unlike the people she meets in Kashmir. We learn that in the mountainous region both Muslims and Hindus live, but not always in harmony. Centuries-old prejudices and hatred seem to boil over every few years, resulting in mutual attacks. Shalini, however, being Hindu in Bangalore, has never dealt with these tensions and so, naturally, does not know how to react.
Understandably, the decisions Shalini ends up making are rarely ever the best. Despite people around her to stay out of something, to seek shelter and be quiet, and to not trust everyone — especially not the armed forces who she had been taught to respect — Shalini decides to do the opposite. As a reader, you know something will go wrong (your intuition is telling you so!), but Shalini, a privileged and somewhat sheltered character, does not.
While this can be infuriating to read about, I think it is the perfect touch to a hooking story. It’s so easy to say “run away” or “don’t do that” when you have the full picture. But Shalini, at each given moment, does not. How do people make decisions if not influenced by their lived experiences? This novel is, in a way, a warning to the dangers associated with privilege. And I love it for it.
🌻 Unlikeable characters
A lot of faults that other readers have pointed at this book is how unlikeable a lot of the characters are. But I think that it’s precisely the fact that you don’t like them because of their actions that makes them such good characters! Not everyone you read about in fiction needs to be likable, in my opinion, and this book is a testament to that.
Although Shalini makes a lot of bad choices, I can’t help but empathize with her. As I said, she is a privileged woman who has no idea what she is getting herself into when she travels to Kashmir. As a lot of people have pointed out, she is a textbook example of a character who is naïve. But, somehow, Madhuri Vijay is able to create this naive adult character in a way that is never obnoxious.
I loved Shalini despite all her flaws — or even because of all her imperfections! She is a troubled character who clearly needs some help and to shed some weight off her shoulders. And yet she manages to be so loving and good-hearted. Many of the bad choices she makes come from a good place and a genuine desire to help… Who can really blame her for it?
🌻 Being an outsider
Another big focus of the novel is the idea that a person can be an outsider for an entire lifetime. We see this when Shalini doubts whether she should even go to Kashmir, whether she can even stay there, and when she wonders how people see her.
Her clothes, her way of carrying herself, the languages she speaks, and her way of perceiving the world all point to the fact that she is not from Kashmir, but from Bangalore. This ends up being very relevant to the book, but I won’t go into details. There is a quote I highlighted that I think puts this feeling of not belonging in the perfect words.
“Was it worth the constant feeling that I was an intruder, the no matter how many years I stayed, I would still never fully belong to this place, or it to me?”
🌻 Complex political tensions
The main thing in the synopsis that drew me to this novel was the promise of political tensions. I love reading about areas that have a very complicated and hurtful past, and I certainly got that from this novel. As the story is mostly set in Kashmir, we see how religious differences and different values have shaped up the region. I hope I’m not saying anything wrong, but if I am, pardon me. This is the first novel I’ve read that deals with these specific problems.
The Kashmir valley belongs to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in northern India, near the border with Pakistan. Since the partition of India in 1947, the region has been claimed by both Pakistan and India, each controlling a portion of the territory. In the novel, there are numerous mentions to militants pouring in from Pakistan to fight against Indian-government armed forces. This comes from the point of view of the Hindu characters, while the Muslim characters claim that the government forces are to be blamed for the unrest.
Getting to the truth is something that’s incredibly hard, and that is mirrored in The Far Field. Depending on religion and upbringing, each character gives us a different look into the roots of the conflict. This really appealed to me and kept me glued to the couch reading so I’d learn more about it all.
These two quotes, written one right after another—the second as a response to the first, I picked out from the novel illustrates, in my opinion, the complexity of the conflict perfectly:
“I think that for more than forty years, India has taken care of Kashmir. We’ve given you jobs and roands and power and hospitals. Our taxes have provided education to thousands of Kashmiri children. So it doesn’t seem like too much to expect some gratitude in return; instead those people you have up there blowing up buildings, shouting slogans for Pakistanm burning Indian flags and whatnot.”
“You have a big business and a big house, and I respect you for that. (…) I have been working and traveling this country for many years now, and I have seen a lot. But I will tell you this: you are not the only one who believes as you do. There are many others who think the same way, who think that people should be happy with whatever they get, even if it isn’t what they want. And I will also tell you this: as long as people like you believe the things you do, then those people in Kashmir, as you call them, will not go away.”
🌻 Intense feelings of regret
The whole story is completely rooted in regret. So many characters regret things they have done (and things they have not done) and suffer from those feelings of guilt. It is more than clear that Shalini, when she starts telling her story, feels like she should have done more or that she should have done less. Thanks to the choices she has made, people are suffering and it’s not just her…
Regret and cowardice are recurring themes in The Far Field. This was one of my absolutely favorite things about the novel: the fact that the characters are not perfect and were completely limited by their experiences and feelings. It made me feel that the characters were very much alive and well-defined and weren’t just plot devices. After all, how many of us, unfortunately, live with regret?
🌻 The storytelling element
The last point I want to bring up is how beautifully incorporated the element of story-telling was. Bashir Ahmed, when Shalini is only a little girl, travels to Bangalore to do business and to see Shalini’s mother. During these meetings, he always has amazing and often fantastic stories to tell. To Shalini, Bashir Ahmed is the best storyteller in the world and it isn’t difficult for her (or for the reader!) to fall deep into them. I loved how the author included these myth-like stories into the narrative. They were so well crafted with just the right amount of plot holes to transport me back to when I was little and also heard these fantastic tales being read or told to me.
In a way, the author found yet another way of adding this same storytelling element, but in this case in the voice of Shalini. The way she remembered and described her childhood and teen years made me think of the way Bashir Ahmed had told those stories so many years ago. The change of narrator from present-tense to past-tense wrapped me in the fabric of this amazing story and pretty much made me feel like I was in a fairy tale, albeit dark and twisted…
I recommend this novel to readers who…
- Have a thing for unlikeable characters
- Like reading about complicated characters and turbulent relationships
- Want to read about modern-day India (21st-century)
- Love well-crafted sentences and a slow-burn novel
- Want to take their first steps in adult literature
I really loved reading this novel, and I would love it if you gave it a chance too! It’s so beautifully written and has a very vibrant and interesting setting… Not to mention enticing characters!