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July Books 24) A House for Mr Biswas

24) A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul.

This was one of the books I bought in order to broaden my acquaintance with the Nobel Prize winners for Literature. It is a rather touching tale of Mohan Biswas, from an Indian family on Trinidad, and his quest to have his own house. There are a lot of interesting cultural and dynastic dynamics - Mr Biswas' clever son Anand is clearly a reflection of the author in some way, so presumably Mr Biswas himself reflects Naipaul's father. The human and physical geography of Trinidad - or at least some small parts of it - is very memorably portrayed.

I found myself dissatisfied with the book on two counts, one minor, one rather more serious. The minor point is that, after a blow-by-blow account of most of Mr Biswas' life, the last few years are telescoped with what feels like somewhat indecent haste, which rather blunts the tragedy of his relatively early death (no spoilers here - it is foreshadowed in the first chapter).

The bigger point is that although we get most of the book from Mr Biswas' own point of view, and most of the rest from Anand's, almost all the women appear as incomprehensible, irrational characters. (With the exception of Mr Biswas' boss during his brief spell as a civil servant.) I regretted that we never heard his wife's voice clearly, and the monstrous mother-in-law presumably would have had her side of the story as well.

Still, at a time when I am struggling through Keay's History of India, I felt that this book set half a world away gave me a much better sense of Indian culture.

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