Sunday, January 07, 2018

Book Review - Janice Pariat's The Nine-Chambered Heart

The cover of Janice Pariat's The Nine-Chambered Heart is one of the most beautiful I have seen in recent times. Nine translucent pink ovals adorn its white cover - are they rose petals? Or are they the nine chambers the title refers to?

The book itself (her third, but the first that I'm reading) is experimental. What is the true identity of a person? Each of us views others through our own lens, our own values and stereotypes. But can a person be understood completely if we have enough lenses to view them through?

In this book, we get different people's perspectives on the same woman - how they got to know her, how their relationship developed, and, ultimately, how it ended.

The writing is beautiful - as tender and fragile and simple as the pink petals on the cover. It doesn't take long to guess that the book is at least partly autobiographical - perhaps the real-ness of the details and the simplicity of the incidents.

Unfortunately, the people who write about the woman are very similar and their perspectives are pretty similar too. Of the eight people who write about her (one person has two entries because he was in a relationship with her twice), six are lovers (including a husband), one is a female flatmate who had a crush on her and one is her art teacher from school. (Leading me to question if that teacher was more than a teacher, of course.)

The most authentic and different perspective is that of the husband. From being completely in love with the woman (and seeming slightly dazed that somebody like her would agree to be with him) to plaintively complaining about how her lifestyle doesn't quite match his income to finally just being exhausted of the entire relationship, the husband is the only one who dares to write negatively about her.

Apart from the husband, the lovers all seem pretty much alike. Okay, let me count them without looking at the book - the first boyfriend (who returns later), the older married man, the poet-publisher married man, the older married man who sees her as a stopgap, the Italian four-night-stand and - wow, I got them all!

Why am I talking more about the people who provided the perspectives, rather than the woman the book is supposedly about? Well, frankly, because we get to know so little of the woman herself. What do we know about her at the end of the book? We know she loves cats. We know she's good in bed (more than one lover vouches for this). We know she likes older married men. We know she's not a "leaver" - she is usually the one who is "left" in relationships. (We are told this multiple times, and not very subtly).

Ultimately, we end the book without a clear idea about the woman herself. The book somehow feels self-indulgent. If the author had chosen to get a more diverse set of people to talk about the woman, and if more of them had provided a realistic narrative, this book would have been a more substantial read.
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