Only very occasionally in over 40 years of active reading have I come across a book that immediately grasps and maintains my attention. Although I read this book over 10 years ago its vibrant prose and profundity of scope remains as a deep and joyful memory. A Suitable Boy is a behemoth of a book, my copy had over 1400 pages of densely spaced text and Wikipedia states it is one of the largest single novels printed in the English Language. The book covers the 1930s to 1950s is locally a social satire and globally a social history..
Only very occasionally in over 40 years of active reading have I come across a book that immediately grasps and maintains my attention. Although I read this book over 10 years ago its vibrant prose and profundity of scope remains as a deep and joyful memory. A Suitable Boy is a behemoth of a book, my copy had over 1400 pages of densely spaced text and Wikipedia states it is one of the largest single novels printed in the English Language. I think in grandeur of scope it bears comparison with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle.
All of Vikram Seth’s books are well-written, his presumption to be a poet first and an author second is demonstrated by his lyrical, simple and eminently readable style that is maintained from the first page to last. Each of the 19 parts of the book is described by a rhyming couplet on the contents page. I have stated that his style is simple but it is cerebral and takes the reader through a gamut of emotions. Quoting a reviewer – "the book includes everything from straight-up action to long brooding descriptions, from fast-paced dialogue to moody soliloquies, from lovely portrayals of India and its landmarks to involving emotional moments."
Before I précis a summary of the plot it should be noted that Vikram wrote this before the emergence of the global economy and the emerging superpower that is India; it should be also noted that the author was educated in the Indian Sub-continent and England and has lived in the United States.
The book covers the 1930s to 1950s is locally a social satire and globally a social history. The novel’s scope ranges from the politics of Nehru to the manoeuvring Mrs. Mehra, the matriarch of one of the four central families who has decided to enlist friends and relatives to help her find her unmarried daughter Lata "a suitable boy.” It provides an epic reminder of the torments or birth pangs from a nation in its infancy to the angst of a young girl in love.
At the social satire level the story revolves around four deeply intertwined families, three Hindu and one Muslim. The Kapoors represent the Hindi-speaking elite, gaining their ascendancy as part of a new political elite, while the middle-class, Anglicized Mehras firmly believe in the superiority of convent schools, English literature and proper manners. The Chatterjis, eccentric and rather scandalous members of the Bengali intelligentsia, indulge in rhyming couplets and coddle a manic dog named Cuddles, as the Muslim, landowning Khans face legislation that threatens to dissolve their culture and Urdu language along with all feudal land-holdings.
At a social history level it describes life in post-colonial India, a subcontinent trying to find its bearings, and to reconcile differing religions and languages in one national identity, as it stands on the brink of its first general election the epic touches upon the Partition. The issues dealt with include national Indian politics in the period leading up to the first post-Independence national election of 1952, Hindu-Muslim animosity, the status of lower caste peoples, land reform and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, empowerment of Muslim women, academic affairs, etc
A Suitable Boy is a life-affirming book, it is brilliant and is well worth the discipline of reading such a long novel. It will make you think about life, the universe, and everything. If you still find this still a little daunting then I can also recommend An Equal Music and The Golden Gate (a novel written in tetrameter).
I leave you with a wonderfully accurate quote:
"A SUITABLE BOY may prove to be the most fecund as well as the most prodigious work of the latter half of this century (20th) - perhaps even the book to restore the serious reading public's faith in the contemporary novel ... You should make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life." Daniel Johnson, The London