Literary Post-mortem: Q & A

My first encounter with this novel was in my second year at University when I was buying my textbooks for the year. Q & A had just become one of the required readings in the first year set work. I was gutted that I wouldn’t get to study it and by the fact that I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time.  1388439205768

I had watched Slumdog Millionaire when it came out as well, but had a very poor recollection of it by the time I began reading this (which I was thankful for).

From the very first word in the prologue to the very last word in the epilogue, I was with, for and enthralled by Ram Mohammed Thomas, the protagonist in this brilliant read. One of the first things that stuck out to me was the structure of each chapter in the book. Each chapter revealed more about some of the harsh circumstances in which Ram grew up but on the flipside also revealed how going through those very specific circumstances helped him answer the game show questions posed at the end of each chapter.

Perhaps I should explain a little here – Ram was a contestant on game show modelled on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but in his case one billion rupees were up for grabs. He miraculously answers all the questions right and wins the one billion. Each chapter of the book serves as an explanation of sorts as to how his street smarts enabled him to answer the questions asked on the show.

This quote from the first chapter in the book speaks to his University of Life degree:

“A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.”

The world being as it is, the powers that be behind the show try to frame Ram as being a cheat because they cannot afford to pay him the money owed to him for winning. He is arrested shortly after the show is recorded and that is how this novel began. A genius start I rate, I don’t know if it would have worked if it had started there.

Structure aside, each chapter tackled very tough themes – everything from disability, to rape, murder, poverty, and even love. There was a twist in every chapter that had me gasping and exclaiming in sheer shock or in some cases just setting the book down for the day because what I had read was just too much. There were some truly terrible moments littered throughout the book, moments that made me realise how universal injustice and suffering are. Even though I knew the stories to be fictional, I know that pain like that isn’t only imagined, it is some peoples, too many peoples lived realities.

Ram speaks about heroes throughout the novel but never seems to think of himself as one. His chequered past seems to be in the way of that. But he is one, through and through. Even when he makes mistakes, they are often done trying to protect others. He is one of the nicest characters I have ever encountered, despite all the things he goes through. That was really inspirational to me, that someone who had been abandoned, cheated and treated less than human over and over again, could strive to get through it all and never give up even in the face of the most trying situations.

It was masterfully written and I applaud Vikas Swarup for this magnificent piece of literature. As depressing a read as it was, it also left me with so much hope and taught me a thing or two about perseverance and fearlessness. Another important thing I learnt was to never let ‘The Man’ win –  to challenge him and perhaps beat him at his own game.

Literary Post-mortem: The Art of Seeing

I’ve decided to do this review a little differently than the others. At the end of this book I found a reading group guide with a number of questions for discussion. Instead of telling you all what the book was about, how it affected me etc – I’ll simply answer some of the questions.

(Note: Most of the questions are very lengthy so in some places I have only concerned myself with parts of the question)

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Q: Why does art play such an important role in the novel? In what way does art define life for Jemma and Rozzie?
A: As a photographer, Jemma uses her way of seeing the world to inform the direction of her art. Her art is one of the most important things in her life and pushes and pulls her in various directions throughout the novel. As an actress, Rozzie was propelled into an artistic industry at a very early age. Her acting ability is her art and it too has a lasting and often overwhelming effect in her life.

Q: Jemma says: “Anecdotes about the rich and famous make people cough into their fist or refold a napkin, staring into their lap…” What is it that makes people uncomfortable? How does society respond to fame in the novel?
A: I think people feel uneasy because of the excessive lifestyles, of the narcissism anf just of the impossible and unimaginable lifestyles the rich and famous lead. In the novel people close to it are mostly uneasy about it and try to keep their distance where possible. Those who don’t have personal proximity with fame are enamoured by it because it doesn’t affect their lives in a real way.

Q: How does Rozzie’s fame affect the way Jemma sees herself and others? How does fame diminish those who are famous and the people around them? How does it build them up?
A: Jemma lives in her sister’s shadow, at some point she stops actively being her sister and becomes one of the many people watching her in awe. She has an inability to connect with other people because of it – she doesn’t seem to think much of herself, she shrinks behind her sister’s brilliance. Rozzie pushed her family away in pursuit of fame, she allowed herself to be influenced by people who didn’t even care about her. I think that’s how it diminished them both. It built Rozzie up in that she was widely adored and admired. For Jemma her sister’s fame helped to build up het career.

Q: Discuss the different paossible meanings of the novel’s title. What is the relationship between art and seeing?
A: It’s a play on Jemma’s photography and Rozzie’s blindness. Both have adapted to alternative ways of seeing the world they live in. I think the relationship between art and seeing is that the way we see is in itself an art. Along with this that art extends beyond physically being able to see, that it’s about making people feel something as much as it is about making them feel something.

Q: Why is Jemma’s story told in first person and Rozzie’s in third person? How does this narrative structure shape our ability to understand each character?
A: I don’t know why but I imagined that it might have to do with the author identifying more with Jemma. The narrative structure made me immediately take Jemma’s side, feel her pain and loneliness more than her sister’s. I felt like the entire story was more about her because of it.

Q: Why does putting on Rozzie’s clothes give Jemma a feeling of protection when she removes her pictures from the gallery? Who is Jemma trying to be?
A: Jemma is a very insecure, meek character who rarely does what she really wants to. By putting on her sister’s clothes she takes on her brave and daring persona. She used the clothes as a mask to allow herself the freedom to do as she wished. She ultimately tried to be het fearless sister for a while.

Q: Why does Rozzie’s relationship with Daniel remain so important to her over the years? What does he give her that no one else can?
A: He was a first – her first lover, first mentor and the first person to truly believe in her and her talents. As this person he provides her with a genuine reassurance in her abilities and when she’s with him she can be her old self. He is her comfort zone.

Q: Jemma says of Rozzie: “My whole life has been shaped by the stretch of her light”, and that, “in my head, she’s always been a celebrity.” How do these statements reflect all sibling relationships?
A: I suppose there’s always one sibling who is the leader and one who follows. In this case Jemma’s whole life was shaped by the way Rozzie’s unfolded.

Q: At the end of the book, Jemma says, “Maybe [Rozzie is] an actress because I made her be one.” What does Jemma mean? How might she be correct?
A: Linked to the previous answer, she always let Rozzie take the lead, forcing her to always be the strong one, the brave one etc. Rozzie had to step up to her baby sister’s expectation, always had to make a show of things.

Q: In what ways does Rozzie’s blindness help both sisters gain more control over their lives? And how does it change their relationship?
A: Rozzie’s blindness forces her to become self dependent and this allows her sister to start building her own life. Even though at first her work is centered around Rozzie, she embarks on a journey of self discovery.  Because they both go their separate ways for a while, they allow themselves to slowly repair their relationship.

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews

[*disclaimer: my book reviews are not really book reviews, just my thoughts after I have read something particularly moving]

This novel has been one of the most interesting and riveting I have ever read. I know I have said the same about other novels – excuse me for having great taste 😛 I even feel bad that I bought it for a mere R3. Well that’s what hospice bookshops are for right?

Shucks I don’t even know were to start. I finished reading about an hour ago and I’m still reeling. The novel did come full circle but I still can’t get over the things that happened to us (the characters and I). I really did feel like I went through the things they did, goodness knows I cried just as much as they did.

From page one I was hooked. Andrews wrote a  prologue that told me that her and I were on the same wavelength. It’s one of the most honest and earnest one I’ve read. My favourite part reads “…in this work of ‘fiction’ I will hide myself away behind a false name, and live in fake places, and I will pray to God that those who should will hurt when they read what I have to say.” She said fiction like that because this book is based on a true story, which made me all the more sad.

I don’t know how to talk about what lay between the covers of this novel without giving the story away. It really is what the front cover said it would be: “the compelling story of a family’s betrayal and heartbreak, love and revenge.” That is quite literally what happens from chapter to chapter.

What I can say that isn’t a spoiler is that the novel is magnificently written. It transported me to the attic, made me feel every blow that these children were dealt, made me fall in love with yet another man and made me see the lengths that we as a species will go to to ‘survive’.

To touch on the latter – there is a theme in the story that focuses on avarice and the love of money. It is disgusting to see how money and the pursuit thereof can change a person, even a loving mother. I don’t think it’s fair to pin all the blame on her, but it is a huge catalyst that leads to the unraveling of a family.

I suppose I can’t ignore the ‘big’, overarching theme in the novel – incest.  I don’t want to dwell on it because then people form their opinion on the matter immediately and it could affect how you receive the rest of the novel. I didn’t let my so called morals colour my thinking – I gave myself to the love story that was presented to me.?

I was actually left traumatised by this read, to think that this actually did happen will make me shudder for some time to come.