I read J.K. Rowling’s debut detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, and wasn’t too impressed. Yes, she has introduced a new kind of private eye – not an easy thing to do in this day and age – and managed to make him a fairly sympathetic figure, warts and all. She plans to develop the template into another seven-part series. Let us see how it fares with the readership: I shall keep my fingers crossed. The first book, it seems, has sold well, though it’s not a patch on the Harry Potter series, and one swallow doth not a summer make. The fact that Ms. Rowling tried a pseudonym first and then quickly ‘leaked’ the fact that it was she because otherwise the book was not selling is a worrisome datum. A rather interesting relationship seems to be developing between the detective Cormoran Strike and his new young secretary Robin Ellacott, so that is one thing I shall watch with interest. Ms. Rowling knows a great deal about the high life in London, and that comes across rather well, as well as her visceral hatred of the paparazzi, and her rather low opinion of womankind in general, which I find both just and admirable. The storyline is rather thin: if you plan to enjoy the book, you must be prepared to do so for the sake of atmosphere rather than plot. What I found most deplorable and utterly unwarranted – unless Ms. Rowling has assumed that her readership is slightly sick – is the endless and intense use of obscenities in virtually everyone’s conversation. If this has been done for the sake of ‘realism’, I have two observations about this: a) one might as well condone detailed descriptions of excretory functions in movies, for they are of course a necessary and permanent part of ‘reality’, and b) Ms. Rowling has herself demonstrated, as have many others, that perfectly good writing can be achieved without it. Also, if this is the kind of conversation I must hear all around me if I am ever in England, I am glad I won’t have to go there. Things are bad enough in the streets of Bengal… one thing I can definitely say is, unlike with Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot or Dr. Thorndyke – or even Harry Potter – I won’t want to re-read this book over and over after gaps of a few years.
I have also just finished the second book in the Ibis trilogy series by Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (Sea of Poppies I read a year ago). I have deeply admired Ghosh as perhaps the finest of living Indian authors in English ever since The Hungry Tide, and my admiration has been redoubled since. He is writing a grand saga in the classical style, not afraid to make each volume several hundred pages long and demanding intense and focussed attention from the reader all through – that he can make a living that way, as can Khaled Hosseini, tells me something most reassuring in the age of twitter.
Every good book leaves you a little wiser, a little better, a little changed. Ghosh’s writing is definitely of that category: he does not write for a moment’s sensation. I pride myself on my knowledge of history, yet he has humbled me with a delicious and highly digestible history of India and China around the 1830s. And the books are a veritable feast for the gourmet of detail, be it about food or ships or flowering plants or paintings or the marvellous and intricate richness and variety of languages (for a lot of readers, of course, that would be the major turn-off: I am glad that to Ghosh as to me, such readers’ opinions don’t count). In the tradition of the best writers of all lands and ages, he has also created a very wide variety of characters who are live enough for you to empathize deeply with. And he left me wondering impatiently what new twists and turns the story would take when I had reached the last page, knowing that the third book, Flood of Fire, is going to be released not before spring 2015.