BOOK REVIEW / Time for a good whine: 'The Binding Vine' - Shashi Deshpande: Virago Press, 5.99 pounds
Saturday 22 May 1993
It is about rape, and the shame of rape. Urmila, the narrator, has befriended the mother of a rape victim and taken up the young girl's case. The girl herself lies 'not dead, not alive' in hospital while her story and her photograph, at Urmila's instigation, are splashed on the front pages of the Bombay papers. Ultimately 'noisy scenes' in parliament force the police to open their file on the case. A success, in other words, for the feminists. But for the family the publicity is a devastating exposure of their shame, and it's their daughter, the victim, who gets the blame. 'We can never wipe off this blot' cries the mother: 'It's all her fault, all her fault.'
From the opening words of this novel we can tell we're going places. 'We all of us grow up with an idea of ourselves and spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to it,' confides our bold narrator. Never mind that the idea itself is not fully explored: our attention is caught. Urmila's moral dilemma of how far to press her concern for the rape victim's family is an absorbing drama; and her own distress (a lost child, uncaring parents, a husband at sea) provides a suitably morose counterpoint. But parallel to this runs another story which is less sparkily told. Urmila finds a trunk-full of 'notebooks of an earlier era'; translates them, and makes a shocking discovery. Her mother-in-law had been raped throughout her marriage by her own husband; her life had been a living hell. Secretly we'd hoped this story might provide a bit of light relief. But in this novel life is not like that that.
The scope for anguish in all this is considerable, and at first Urmila's effusive expressions of pain are no more than you'd expect. Soon, though, we're beginning to question our narrator's self-control. Urmila's 'emptiness within', the 'million cruelly sharp pieces' of her shattered dreams acquire, sad to say, a numbing familiarity. In a novel with a message it's not surprising to find the narrator pushing herself out front and urging us like this onto the paths of right thinking. But readers don't like being shepherded, and too much editorial prodding risks their sympathy. Urmila is in many ways an excellently imagined character - a true combination of the irritating and charming - but she needs to learn some narratorial manners.
'What terrible things we do in the process of surviving,' she sighs, and there's ample evidence here that she's right. During the course of this novel three young children die; a grandfather hangs himself; a mother dies in childbirth; and an entire family is run over on the pavement. Why? Perhaps it all goes to illustrate the 'unbearable burden of belonging to the human race.' This is the novel's big question: Why, faced with such a burden, do we carry on? Why bequeath the misery to our children? The reason is, we're told, that we are tied to life by love, the 'binding vine' of the title. But I'm not convinced. No kind of love could ever hope to compensate for the hell these characters go through.
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
Arts & Ents blogs
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 North Koreans are gasping for the truth: Let's give it to them
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 4 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- 5 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- < Previous
- Next >