Books that bruise your fragile psyche


Books that bruise your fragile psyche

DEBORAH STEINMAIR read two new books that made her realise the failed experiment that is humanity.


ONE reads to relax, to stand in others' shoes, to escape. It's enjoyable to read a formulaic crime novel where right and justice ultimately prevail and the mystery is neatly solved, without messy loose ends, unlike real life. But some books are messy like reality, full of unresolved questions and uncomfortable realisations.

Such a book is Choice by Neel Mukherjee, a writer who has been on the Booker shortlist. It's like a nightmare from which you can't wake up. It's lovely and devastating. Characters find themselves at crossroads and on the horns of impossible dilemmas. They're anxious about climate change, have shocking experiences in Ubers, live below the bread line and die in extreme poverty.

The book is in three parts that converse with one another only because the second story is actually a short story in a manuscript the character in the first story, Ayush, considers for publication. The third story originated in a discussion Ayush had with an economist about a project in India to alleviate poverty. It was, therefore, supposed to be written by Ayush or the economist, Ritika. There is an overriding theme of freedom of choice or, sometimes, the absence thereof. Characters wage a war against their own world.

In the first story, we meet Ayush, an editor at a publishing house. He's of Indian descent, obsessive-compulsive, and keeps count on his computer of the number of fish left in the sea. He and his husband are the parents of twins, a boy and girl born through a surrogate mother. He worries about their future — he never wanted to bring children into this declining world. He shows the children a video of pigs living in a cramped pen and being messily slaughtered in a sea of blood. They no longer want to eat meat. He gradually unravels and you must read for yourself what happens to him, if you have the stomach for it.

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The second story/cameo is about Emily, a British academic who drinks too much one evening and has a nightmare experience in an Uber on the way home when the reckless driver causes a hit-and-run accident. She bumps her head, suffers from concussion and a hangover and doesn't tell the police or anyone else. Later the driver, an illegal immigrant, seeks her out and she becomes involved in his problematic life. The underlying moral is that even if you make what seems to be the correct moral choice, it offers no escape. 

In the third part of the triptych, the reader spends time on the edge of a small village in India where a family of four lives in a mud hut. The father works on and off elsewhere, has a coal mine cough and a grim disposition. The mother is overwhelmed. She walks four hours every day to get to work as a domestic help in a few households. There isn't always enough rice to eat.

Then people from the village give them a cow to uplift them. They also get bales of hay and instructions. The mother wonders why they didn't just give money instead. The cow becomes a liability: her hay is quickly finished and she eats from the family's meagre rice ration. They are Hindus and don't eat meat. They become attached to the cow, but she requires a lot of work and money they don't have. This cow will be the death of you, one of the mother's employers tells her. You must read for yourself if and how this dark prophecy is fulfilled. The gift becomes an unbearable burden.

All the stories deal with the unlivability of life. It's excellently written, sometimes even funny, often lyrical, with a razor-sharp intelligence. It's a mind-fuck that makes you think about uncomfortable truths and nagging existential questions. The question is asked: “Shouldn't existence be a quarrel with everything that could be better, but isn't?"

I couldn't put it down.

Choice by Neel Mukherjee is published by Atlantic Books and costs R400 at Exclusive Books.

Another dark book is Storm Child by Michael Robotham. At the beginning, I had a strong sense of déjà vu: I knew these characters and their peculiar dynamics. Had I read this book before? But it was only published this year. Then I saw that there were already three books in the series. Sometimes you meet old friends again on the reading path.

The main characters are Cyrus Haven and Evie Cormac. Both were exposed to inhuman cruelty as children. Cyrus's schizophrenic brother murdered his parents and twin sisters, and he discovered their bodies. His brother is now in an institution and he visits him twice a month. It inspired him to become a psychologist.

In his work, he met Evie when he had to assess her. She is of Albanian descent, brought to England by human traffickers with her mother and sister. On the way, their boat was attacked and her mother and sister presumably died. She remembers little of it. She was kept as a child prostitute in England, escaped and hid in a wall. Afterwards, she was in a children's home and with foster parents, unsuccessful placements. She is a truth wizard: she always knows when someone is lying. She is socially maladjusted, with a sharp tongue, and dissociates when everything becomes too much. She doesn't like to be touched and doesn't let anyone close to her.

Except Cyrus, with his body covered in tattoos of multicoloured birds and his own ghosts. They are not lovers, he is 10 years older than her, but they live together in the old manor house he inherited from his grandparents. He protects her without overwhelming her. They have an interesting, irritable relationship.

One day, 17 bodies wash up on a Lincolnshire beach. There is only one survivor and Cyrus helps to save him. The experience triggers Evie's childhood trauma and she becomes completely apathetic, comatose.

Now Evie and Cyrus must brave the storm and unravel this intriguing mystery (which relates to Evie's own trauma).

It's highly readable and makes you think about trauma, memory and memory loss. And turn pages ever faster to solve the puzzles. Although the subject matter is heavy, the relationships between characters lighten the dark landscape. It's humane, funny and gripping. I highly recommend it.

Storm Child by Michael Robotham was published by Little Brown Group and costs R450 at Wordsworth.

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