Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance HeaderIf you are looking for the Cliff Notes version of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, here it is:  And they lived UNhappily ever after (and the whole “live” part is negotiable).  The End.

If you turn to its pages seeking an uplifting novel, keep searching.  Unless, that is, your idea of uplifting is death and dismemberment – don’t worry, I won’t judge if it is… at least not too much.  Ok I lied I will DEFINITELY judge you, but you have to know already that you are a bit of a freak.  Even though at times I fell into the trap of believing that everything was going to turn out ok for the eternally unlucky characters of this novel, it didn’t.  And although I am not one of those people who absolutely needs a happy ending in order to enjoy a book, in this case it would have been really nice.  Because this book truly is the ultimate epitome of depressing.  And when deciding whether to read a few more pages of the horribly sad Balance or watch another episode of Castle, it’s sort of difficult to work up the motivation to do the former.

The story takes place in the 1970s in the slums of India, and portrays the country at its very finest.  If you know anything about the slums of India, you know that last statement carries with it a thinly veiled layer of sarcasm.   In the house of the widowed Dina Dalal, four lives irrevocably intersect – that of Dina, her paying college-attending boarder (Maneck), and two tailors hoping to build a better life than the one they were born into (uncle and nephew team Ishvar and Om).  They have each seen their fair share of tragedy in their lives (perhaps Ishvar and Om more than others), and although their stay together seems a brief reprieve from the ever looming brutality and humiliation they can’t seem to shake, they find that they cannot hide from it forever, as hard as they might try.

I liked the story, but I didn’t love it.  However, I am still haunted by many of the images put forth by Mistry, and something tells me I will be for quite a while (although it was made apparent from our last book club meeting that I have already forgotten a lot of details about the book – apparently there is only so much tragedy I can take before I start suppressing it).  Mistry really brought to life the world of poor Indians born into a low caste, trying to get by day to day with at least some semblance of dignity, despite the mercilessly unrelenting attempts by upper caste members and their very own government to rip it apart.  Really nailing the feel of the place being described is a necessary foundation for any good book.  However, above getting India right and allowing me to viscerally experience firsthand the sights, smells, and feelings that go along with it, the characters just couldn’t take me to that next level.  I didn’t particularly like any of them except for Ishvar (but then I have a thing for fiercely protective, polite old men).  I think the reason why I didn’t really respond to the characters was the lack of strong female leads.  Dina was endlessly frustrating with the way she initially treated other people, and there is only so much defamatory talk against women from the mouths of college aged boys a person can take before wanting to kick somebody in the nuts.  Maybe if there was a female that I could really feel sympathy for, my rating would have escalated from like to love.

Furthermore, I think that there was so much tragedy stuffed in to one novel that by the end I was utterly desensitized to it.  In fact, I expected the tragedy.  Which is why for once I was really hoping for the unexpected – a happy twist – that unfortunately never came.  At one point, a proofreader tells Maneck, “Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success.  You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair… In the end, it’s all a question of balance.”  This quote, for which the book draws its title, depicts the overall theme running through the entire book – knowing how to balance hope and despair.  By the end, all I could think was:

So much for that balance.  Sayonara hope.  All that remains is despair, despair, despair.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

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