Updated: Feb 23, 2019
Kurt Vonnegut once famously gave the writing advice: "Make your characters want something right away, even if it's only a glass of water."
Herein lies the primary issue with Madhuri Vijay's debut novel, The Far Field: its protagonist, a young and privileged South Indian woman named Shalini, doesn't know what she wants. She, like many of us in our early and mid twenties, is rudderless. She mourns the death of her mother, is in a job she doesn't really like, and her relationships, be they familial or romantic, all seem to have a certain hollowness to them. This kind of ennui/ funk is relatable stuff--just not the stuff that good novels are made of.
The event that really sets the novel in motion is Shalini's decision to leave her job in Bangalore and travel to Kashmir in search of a man named Bashir Ahmed, who frequently visited Shalini's mother and household when Shalini was a child. And so, what begins as a personal coming-of-age story of a young woman, transforms into a political novel that deals with the complex history and violence in Kashmir. By the end of the novel though, I was left feeling a little cheated by how the book dealt with Kashmir and realized I would have strongly preferred that a novel dealing with the conflict be told from the perspective of an insider rather than from Shalini's privileged vantage point.
For the most part, the book alternates between two narratives: Shalini's childhood in Bangalore and Shalini's adult trip to Kashmir. It seems as if the intent of this structure is to allow Vijay to withhold crucial pieces of information regarding Shalini's backstory so that these revelations can serve as "twists" as the book progresses. That said, the structure backfires to some degree in that information that would have informed Shalini's motivations in the adult narrative are withheld far too long (the cause of her mother's death for instance) and by the time they're revealed, they seem beside the point.
The writing itself is run-of-the-mill literary stuff, which is to say that it is extraordinarily competent and even occasionally beautiful, but that it lacked the distinctiveness to elevate the novel above the flaws inherent to its characters, plot and structure.
In the end, Vijay may prove herself to be a great writer, but The Far Field is by no means a must-read book.