March 2006

Sumita Sheth

fiction

The Wonder House by Justine Hardy

From the time you pick-up this novel with its mysterious, misty cover, to when you finally put it down, you will likely find the writing delightful but the message that the author wants to convey a little obscured. We appreciate and understand the personal dilemmas and struggles of human relationships portrayed but it is the handling of political issues that throws us off.

Set in Kashmir, the novel gets its title from a houseboat named The Wonder House, a boat that we learn to watch carefully from the onset, even as it floats on the Nagin (Snake) Lake. The current occupant of the boat is British Gracie Singh, a now widowed Indian-princess-by-marriage. Attached to her life are other lives which we begin to fear will also come under the influence of the possibly cursed houseboat.

Justine Hardy obviously knows Kashmir well, describing its everyday pulse, mood and people convincingly. Likewise we are persuaded to accept the delineation of the motives behind a young boy from a loving home joining Kashmiri militants or the way passion blooms between Lila and the British journalist Hal or the state that Gracie finds herself in at the end of a long if tragic life:

Gracie twitched and stared out at the lake beyond her narrowing world. There was a sound of gunfire from the city… A small boat moved across her horizon, its shape an upward brushstroke on the water.

And in the copper market in the city beyond the lake a teenage boy fell in the street across the road from an army checkpost. The bullet that killed him entered just below his collarbone and exited under his Adam's apple. The street was empty around the body, and a young soldier behind the sandbags vomited out of sight of any of the surrounding shopkeepers as they pulled back behind their stacked copper pots, silent hermit crabs.

The lake remained quiet.

Justine Hardy's characterization of her characters is compelling. We come to feel for Gracie Singh, who is sometimes over the top, yet so human and real in her heartbreaking loneliness. Gracie's motives are veiled and still the author manages to let the reader see what she is up to. There is the pathos of Masood the boat owner, once lighthearted and flirtatious, who has been turned by circumstance and bigger-than-him events into a broken, lost man.  

As a background to all this are the events in Pakistan and India, both enemy states whose every disposition change reverberates with consequences that affect the lives of the people of Kashmir remorselessly. Meanwhile, impressed by Jawaharlal Nehru's secular politics, Gracie Singh dwells on her dislike for any religious affiliations, stating that her boat is "secular, a tiny pocket of success for Pandit Nehru." However, it is soon apparent that Nehru's politics has utterly failed in Kashmir, the state that his forefathers originally hailed from.

Around the time the discussion of politics begins is when the confusion enters the reading. In a story of personal relationships, sometimes historical and political background strengthens events, but here one is left with unanswered questions. Has the Kashmir issue always been just about religion? What happened to the secular state it used to be? If even privileged and special people like Gracie Singh can have their lives upturned by these events, then what of the everyday people? What hope can they have? Of course, it is unfair to expect a political treatise in a fiction novel, but Hardy doesn't bring the reader far enough into the conflict. It is likely the issue of Kashmir itself being too large rather than the author's uneven handling.

Having been a fan of the movie The Far Pavilions in the past, only to read the book and find it disappointing, this similar-seeming book was a definite relief. Despite its selling us a familiar tragedy of British-Indian love pairings thrown in with a dash of Indian royalty for good measure, Justine Hardy has researched her setting much more thoroughly than M.M. Kaye. It is contemporary, well-written and a good read. Having mentioned The Far Pavilions, one perhaps wouldn't compare The Wonder House to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. It lies somewhere in between the two books. However, after reading this book, one will look forward to picking-up the next fiction novel by Ms. Hardy for the sheer experience of her prose.

The Wonder House by Justine Hardy
Atlantic Books
ISBN: 1843544326