Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

It’s always interesting to see patterns emerge in a writer’s work. Neesha Meminger’s debut novel Shine, Coconut Moon offered a nuanced account of a seventeen-year-old Indian Sikh girl’s exploration of her identity; the catalyst for  Samar’s journey was post 9/11 America’s reaction to her color, race, ethnicity, and religion. In Jazz in Love, seventeen-year-old Jazz is figuring out who she is, but this time, the catalyst is her inner world–first, her hormones, and then, her (Indian Sikh) family. Jazz’s story is hence more universal and simultaneously, more particular than Samar’s.

Jazz, who’s formulated her romantic philosophy from the bodice-rippers she hides from her parents, is curious and a little scared when it comes to love. All she really wants is to experiment a bit to see what works for her, before she settles down. And every seventeen-year-old can relate to that. But Jazz’s conservative parents want to pair her up with a suitable boy so as to remove any opportunities for experimentation. Their respect for tradition runs very deep, and not just in opposition to American ways; I saw the central conflict more in terms of generational differences than immigrant-versus-American culture. This book could, with a few changes, have been set in modern-day India, for there isn’t really an “American” angle to the plot, other than the fact that “modern” is so often conflated with “westernized”.

The story is simple. When her parents catch Jazz hugging Jeeves, her best-friend-from-kindergarten-who-happens-to-be-male, they quickly fix her up with a “suitable” boy so as to pre-empt any romantic forays. But the suitable boy has a secret which makes him unsuitable–and which leaves Jazz free to sigh over Tyler, the one who makes her hormones froth and buzz. And Jeeves, meanwhile, morphs into hotness too.

It’s the standard love triangle, but the issues herein are quite particularly Sikh/Indian. Jeeves is Indian and Sikh too, but unsuitable because he’s not of Jazz’s caste; quelle horreur! Tyler is Indian, but from the Caribbean, so he’s apparently not considered “Indian” Indian by some. Meminger balances this emphasis on ethnic specifics with vivid details of Jazz’s emotional and sensual experiences. We’re with Jazz as she tries to fathom her impulses, and we’re there as she figures out that with freedom comes the possibility–no, certainty– of making mistakes.

Meminger is very good indeed at describing the madness of seventeen; she had me alternately wishing I were young and hot again, and then, thanking the pantheon that I’ll never have to revisit this part of my life. She’s also scarily at ease with teenspeak, and I had several LOL moments (see, I’m learning!), as when I read about bindi-bos (bindi-sporting bimbos), and when Jeeves suggests that a thirty-something man is old, and hence “not good with the internet.” Damn, is that what they think of us?

Jazz… isn’t quite as accomplished as Shine— some of the scenes had an explaining note to them, and, as might be expected from this genre, the plot follows a predictable path.  The ending, though, was entirely satisfactory, avoiding a neat resolution (and perhaps, in the process, setting up the possibility of a sequel?) And props to Jazz… for providing me a longed-for break from the self-conscious gravitas of much contemporary South Asian literature. This book rejoices in the sensual, it’s light-hearted and witty, and you can tell that the author had fun writing it. Not as much fun as I did reading it, Neesha!

Note: Neesha self-identifies as Canadian, so I’m counting this one towards the Canadian Book Challenge.

Goodbye, Eva Ibbotson

I read my first ever Eva Ibbotson  at at age nine or whereabouts, when I found Which Witch in my school library. The chronicle of Arriman the Awful’s  quest for a sufficiently wicked witch mate had every ingredient necessary to enchant a nine-year-old. There was a romance which acknowledged how vomit-inducing romance can seem to young readers, evil magic that wasn’t evil enough to satisfy the mighty wizard Arriman but plenty fun for this age group, a nice  secretary with a little tail, a heroic worm named Rover, and at least fifteen other secondary characters strong enough to command their own novels. Oh, and writing that begged to be read out loud. The ghost who wanders,  moaning with misery, striking his forehead with a plashing noise! Arriman, Loather of Light and Blighter of the Beautiful! Belladonna the good witch whose nose turns up at the end, making a resting place for tired ladybirds!

My library had only one Ibbotson, and I never found any others in Indian bookstores. Then high school and exams and misplaced priorities intruded, and I forgot all about Ibbotson till 2002, when a browse in a charity shop in England left me wobble-kneed with remembered happiness–and trepidation. Would Which Witch hold up to re-reading?

book cover of   Which Witch?   by  Eva Ibbotson

It did, and as with all of her other kidlit, still does. Ibbotson’s ten wondrous books for children include The Secret of Platform 13, which anticipated J.K. Rowling’s Platform 9 and three-quarters by several years, Journey to the River Sea, a non-fantasy set in Brazil, and The Island of the Aunts, about an island inhabited by mermaids, selkies, and other magical creatures. Ibbotson never Disneyfied her stories–people die, adults are frequently cruel because they know they can get away with it, and authorities and institutions often harm those they are supposed to protect. The edge in her fantasies comes from reality, thus allowing adult readers to appreciate not just her inventiveness but her insight.

And now that I have a child of my own, I’m doubly grateful that Ibbotson’s young protagonists behave like real children. Her  creations are mulish and impetuous and sometimes downright naughty. They often have fierce (and sometimes misguided) loyalties, which leaves them terribly vulnerable to manipulation. The “good” children are fun and nice and hard-working, but never sweet. The disagreeable ones are lazy and selfish due to overindulgent parenting.  There are no bad seeds amongst  Ibbotson’s children, just improperly sown ones.

Another distinct thread in Ibbotson’s work is a horror of those who set great store by wealth or power. Her villains’ lust for riches leads to a gradual erosion of scruple, culminating in their indifference to human life. In The Island of the Aunts, Mr. Sprott’s love for money has twisted his perceptions till he “felt mistreated. If the aunts had sold him the Island as he wanted, he wouldn’t have to drown them now, and the children too. It was their own fault, really.” I should add that Ibbotson was careful to make the distinction between greed and ambition in her novels; children of course have always known the difference.

A similar pattern plays out in Ibbotson’s five romances, where true love’s triumph is hindered by secondary characters motivated by self-centeredness and greed.  Some of these romances seem even more fantastical than Ibbotson’s kidlit, featuring as they do wholesome heroines who are good and brave and eager to serve without reward, and heroes whose sole faults are misplaced jealousy and an excess of chivalry.  But the prose is remarkable, always  respecting the reader’s intelligence, and if the books sometimes feel like variations of the same novel, I’m mostly fine with it.

Ibbotson drew heavily on her Austrian background for her romances–A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift are both set against the Nazi take-over of the region, while Magic Flutes revolves around the opera houses of Vienna (and Viennese pastry gets its due share of the spotlight too). Despite their fairly complex plots, these romances were recently reissued as YA novels, presumably due to the lack of explicit sex scenes.   Consider yourselves warned–some of the YA imprints have different titles; forehead plashing may be occasioned after spending $ 9.99 on The Reluctant Heiress (2009) only to find that it’s Magic Flutes (1982).

The romances are fine in their own way, but it is the children’s books I come back to, over and over again, and I now wait for my son to discover Ibbotson in his turn. You never say good-bye to a beloved writer’s work, only au revoir.

Eva Ibbotson died on October 20, 2010, aged 85.

***

From the Guardian obituary: Eva Ibbotson, who has died peacefully at home aged 85, entranced her readers with stories which, though robust in substance, appeared to be effortlessly spun in the finest thread from an endless source of imagination. Descriptively vivid, richly inventive and shot through with perfectly timed wit, they charmed adults and children alike. She was best known for Journey to the River Sea, which won a Smarties prize and was runner-up for the 2001 Guardian children’s fiction prize, but she also won awards for other children’s books including The Secret of Platform 13 (1994) and The Star of Kazan (2004), and the Romantic Novelists’ Association award for her adult novel Magic Flutes (1982).

Pastel by Georgette Heyer

I’m not the Georgette Heyer fanatic I was at thirteen; I now find her work repetitive, and extremely uneven in quality–for every Grand Sophy there lurks in the bookshelf a Corinthian or a Beauvallet.  Still, I enjoy dipping into my old faves over and over, and I’ve probably read Lady of Quality twenty times.  (For those not in the know, these are titles of Regency romances–a wildly popular genre created single-handedly by Heyer.)

Besides her thirty-odd  Regencies (all of which are still in print, and continue to sell briskly), Heyer also penned several well-regarded if not popular thrillers.  The least famous of her works is a handful of contemporary novels that Heyer herself suppressed after their initial  publication. These novels seem to have been reissued after Heyer’s death in 1974,  only to disappear into oblivion shortly after.

I chanced upon one of these long out-of-print works at my local library sale last week. Pastel (1910) is the story of two sisters, Evelyn, a flamboyant beauty who’s all quicksilver charm and verve, and Frances, an ordinarily pretty, less vivid  personality who longs for the aura of glamor surrounding her sister.  Frances’s envy crystallizes when she falls in love and the object of her affections seem to prefer Evelyn.  The manner in which the two sisters navigate their love-lives, and, in particular, Frances’s reconciliation of her girlish fantasies with the reality of married life forms the thrust of the story.

(Image from http://www.abfar.co.uk/bibliogs/gh_bib.htm)

The premise has distinct possibilities, but Heyer never quite follows through, and the result is a maddeningly unsatisfying novel. From the heavy-handed metaphor of Evelyn in a primrose frock  telling her mutinous sibling that pastel colors suit her best ( in the first chapter, no less)  to pages of expository dialogue about the New Woman,  it almost seems  as though Heyer was unable to articulate her argument clearly even to herself. Many interesting angles, such as Frances’ fear of sexual intimacy, are not fully developed; instead, we are given Scenes featuring tears and sulks and pouts and cliches, where capricious women slay men by peeping through their long wet lashes.

Frances dabbed at her eyes and gave a heart-rending sob. She did not look outraged now; she looked forlorn and pathetic, and Norman was filled with a deep loathing for himself. He put his arms around her, but not too tightly, just in case it was after all another wrong move. “I’m sorry darling. I didn’t mean to make you cry. Don’t precious!”

Frances turned and clung to him. “Oh Norman!” she sobbed. “I’m sorry! It was all my fault!”

So inspite of every appearance to the  contrary it had been the right move after all. Truly you never knew where you were with women, or what was expected of you.

Heyer’s main preoccupation is the role of gender and class in the romantic and marital lives of women, and her coy tone does her subject a disservice, placing the novel in an uneasy territory somewhere between chick-lit and literary fiction.  The romance in Pastel is both an end in itself and a means to explore the differing personalities of the two sisters in terms of their attitudes towards life and matrimony (the two being inextricably entwined for women of that era).  Of course, the girls’ viewpoints are a  function of their social class as much as their respective natures, and very much a  product of the time, but still, I was taken aback at the sense of entitlement they displayed, and how much privilege they took for granted, and as a consequence,  was perhaps less sympathetic towards the protagonists than I might have  been.

Heyer writes fluently as always, and the book moves along at a steady clip, but to my mind, Pastel does not quite succeed either as character study or an inquiry into gender roles in the romantic life.  I suppose this book could be read as a record of the era, but so many novels better fulfill this function that, in the final reckoning, I must agree with Heyer’s own opinion of this work. Keep Pastel suppressed, I say!

Pastel by Georgette Heyer

Buccaneer Books, New York, 1977 (orig. 1910)

Genre: Popular fiction

Mary Stewart’s novels: Part Two

Part One of my post about Mary Stewart is here. You may want to check it out before reading this post.

Much of the dramatic tension in a Stewart comes from the setting–her heroines usually land in a mystery while vacationing  in some exotic (read non-English) locale. The romance then may be read as a safe haven in an unfamiliar and (hence) threatening world. More than almost any in this genre, Stewart’s plots require that an alien landscape be brought alive for the reader, so the prose must pull its weight if the plot is to work. Very different from most contemporary thrillers, where a complicated plot is held up as an excuse for inadequate prose (think Dan Brown). Vivid (along with evocative and poignant) should be eliminated from the reviewer’s stable, but vivid is one of Stewart’s middle names. Consider this description:

“It is never quite dark on a clear June night in the highlands… Back in the city, or in fact anywhere that I had lived, the night sky was disfigured by street lamps and the city’s emanations. But here, in a clear arch of pewter-grey air, the stars were low and bright and as thick as daisies on a lawn.” (from Stormy Petrel)

It’s pretty clear to me that Stewart is a writer first and a romantic thriller writer second, in that her prose stands alone on its merits regardless of the genre where her work might be placed.  (Stewart can lay claim to romance, mystery, history and fantasy with equal authority, and one could easily imagine her making a living off non-fiction, writing essays and travel pieces and so on.) The tightly furled plots, the quiet passion of her prose, and her trademark combination of accessibility and erudition make Stewart’s novels unique; at their best, her work reminds us of the potency of the storyteller in history and myth,  a figure who beguiled listeners into laying aside their daily cares for a few moments to enter other worlds, other lives.

But just as I’m completely smitten by Stewart’s writing, I smash up against the biases in her work. I’m always wary about viewing older works in the light of my feminist, post-colonial sympathies, but I cannot overlook this: Stewart’s protagonists don’t really interact with the locals in foreign locales in a way that counts. The lead couple is always British. The main villain is always British. The locals are nicely, sometimes even flatteringly described, but they are props to further the main action. They make for good friends or accomplices, but no more. I’ve read seven Stewarts, and I’m pretty sure the author would sooner hook her heroine up with a dolphin than a non Anglo-Saxon (man). And in The Gabriel Hounds (1967), set in Damascus, Stewart’s painterly prose is all but overshadowed by her tin ear for orientalist clichés. References to the “primitive mind”, the greed of the natives, the sloe-eyed charmer who wants to become an English lady, the “rapid stream of Arabic…which sounded like nothing more than the spitting of an angry cat”—all this is plain embarrassing to read. Of course, these views are but the products of the time, and while I’m not in favour of revising the work in any way, I have to say: WTF. And: thanks, Stewart, for not setting any of your books in India; it would’ve broken my heart.

And I must mention the heroines’ penchant for the Dramatic Swoon. Charity in MWYT and Linda in Nine Coaches Waiting and Gianetta in Wildfire at Midnight all faint, and Christy in The Gabriel Hounds and Annabel in the Ivy Tree have near-faints. Yes, the heroine usually passes out after some terrifically arduous task, but still, must she? Also, Stewart usually has the hero show up to finish the adventure off post-swoon—it’s as though the heroine couldn’t quite see the task to fruition without male help. And the climax often has the heroine sheltering thankfully in the hero’s protective/safe arms. This is a sad, sad thing, especially since the two have an equitable relationship during the course of the novel; why infantilize the heroine towards the close?

I should mention that my impressions of Stewart’s work are based on seven out of her twenty-odd novels; I would be happy if the rest prove me wrong. I read the following in the order mentioned below:

Madam Will You Talk
Nine Coaches Waiting
Stormy Petrel
The Ivy Tree
The Gabriel Hounds
This Rough Magic
Wildfire at Midnight

Wildfire at MidnightI could not stand Wildfire at Midnight. This one should sport a warning sticker “Not for Stewart beginners.” The prose is impeccable, and the plot well-oiled as ever, but the heroine is an idiot disappointing. Since when is a woman’s youth and sexual inexperience an excuse for her partner’s infidelity? The answer, at least for this genre, is: NEVER. At the very least, I expect the hero to have suffered agonies of remorse, and bear visible signs of the same (premature greyness would be a good start)  before the grand reconciliation. A blasé ex-philanderer sauntering into the heroine’s waiting arms has me diving for the Gravol. But I like to think Wildfire… is the aberration in an otherwise delightful body of work, and I would recommend any of the others if you’re a Stewart novice.

For more about Stewart, there’s always Wikipedia. And Jennie and Julie’s unashamedly admiring Stewart site MaryStewartnovels.com, which really nails why Stewart commands such affection and respect from her readers. Their site has wonderful Stewart resources including a great bibliography, and a blog where you can find lovely snippets about the author as well as the very occasional giveaway.

And a bonus: a quiz site on Stewart’s books. The site looks dodgy but hasn’t harmed my computer (yet).

Revisiting an old flame: Mary Stewart

Revisiting a teenage passion is fraught with potential self-hatred. It’s like coming upon old photographs where I’m encrusted with acne and acid-wash denim, with a giant lace butterfly on my skull (thanks a lot, Facebook tags). But I succumbed to the siren’s call, and here is the result: a blog post on Mary Stewart.

Mary Stewart sounds like she belongs somewhere between Henry the VIII and Victoria (yes, a nice safe spread there), but she actually keeps company with Georgette Heyer and T.H. White. I’m not sure if Stewart is better known for her Arthurian novels or as a romance writer, but she is to the romantic suspense novel as Einstein is to relativity, and it is the latter novels I want to talk about in this post. Her first novel Madam, Will You Talk was published in England in 1955, and marked the start of a long and successful career–all her books are still in print today. Truly remarkable for this genre.

When I stumbled upon Madam, Will You Talk at my local library, I was instantly awash in nostalgia. Along with her soul sisters Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie,  Stewart gave me hours of teenage reading bliss–the closest I get to that nowadays is watching Project Runaway cuddled up with a jar of warm Nutella. I immediately checked out MWYT along with four other Stewarts, and I’ve been (re-)reading her work the past couple of weeks.

First off: Stewart has dated really well–MWYT’s story line and its heroine are as likeable and urgent  fifity years after they first appeared. While vacationing in Provence, Charity Selborne befriends a troubled young boy whose father has been (perhaps wrongly) acquitted of murder. Intelligence, along with an obdurate refusal to acknowledge when she’s beaten help Charity set things right. In Stewart’s world, this means the wicked are punished and the innocent protected from further harm. Also notable: Charity’s love for fast cars, and not as a passenger; Stewart’s heroines are all at home in the driver’s seat.

 

[MadamWill.jpg]

(Pic from http://marystewartnovels.blogspot.com/.)

(I usually have a tiny picture on the top left of my posts, but this cover deserves serious eyeballs. )

(Mary Stewart. Source: http://www.hodder.co.uk/authors/author.aspx?AuthorID=1594)

The other four novels I read feature similar quick-witted, resolute, competent  heroines, and follow roughly the same pattern. The primary tension in Stewart’s work lies in the struggle between conscience and love–some honorable scruple prevents the heroine from realising her attraction to the hero, at great personal cost. Stewart’s protagonists have often experienced tragedy (Charity lost her husband in the war, while Linda of Nine Coaches Waiting was brought up in an orphanage), and their familiarity with loss and loneliness makes them place a very high value on  love. Their choice of honor over happiness appears even more remarkable in this light.

It also seems clear to me that Stewart does not care for the naive heroine. Her protagonists  are innocent but not unworldly–many have been sexually active in the past, for instance. They always display a certain maturity when faced with danger; they may get  angry or frightened, but they are unsurprised that the world could be so malignant–we do not once hear the entitled child’s cry of  “why me?” in these stories.  Stewart’s heroines are never passive—they usually tumble into adventure in the course of aiding the vulnerable (a child or a wounded animal are favorite hooks). The trouble they land in is never of their own making, but they are nonetheless eager to help.  They are also resourceful and practical and don’t care too much about their appearance. A Mary Stewart heroine would always have spare batteries in the kitchen drawer and sheets flapping whitely on a line out back, and her hair would never fall in her eyes.

Stewart’s characters also correspond very closely to my (post colonial) conception of a certain type of literary Britishness. Her women are fond of understatement and decorum, they prize courage and hard work and detest (melo)drama, and scorn those who don’t share their predilections. And while her protagonists are all cut from the same serviceable cloth, Stewart styles them uniquely;  each stands distinct even though she is essentially writing about the same character in every novel.

The novels also completely satisfy as thrillers–the mystery is juicy and complex enough to never seem like an excuse for romance. Stewart uses the gradual solution of the puzzle to develop her characters, thus providing legitimate ground for a relationship; much more than shared danger and adrenaline draws the principals together. The novels are entirely character-driven; thus, the protagonists don’t fight shadowy criminal gangs but grapple with villains who are friends or even family members, whose actions are shaped by logic and/or personal enmity. The violence in these books is hence never casual or thrilling, but a brutish and messy betrayal that exacts a terrible moral toll on the perpetrators and their accomplices.

(To be continued. I’ll provide some MS links and resources in that post. And what I didn’t like 😦  about her work )

Update: the second part of my post on Stewart is up here.