23 December 2013

Queer Trial

This is my fourth column for The Sunday Guardian.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was put on trial three times – once as prosecutor and twice as defense – and he was sentenced to hard labour for “committing gross indecency with men”. The three trials posed very difficult questions to the Victorians, well-known for their prudishness, about the sorts of love that were acceptable. Wilde was not the sort of person who had ever busied himself with questions of morality. It was only beauty that preoccupied him – beauty and, as a consequence, love.

Wilde’s work furiously champions the unconventional nature of desire. In the title story in The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a statue falls in love with a swallow. It seems as though Wilde is perpetually asking why any sort of love is wrong or should be forbidden. In some of his essays, he seems utterly perplexed at the foolishness of a world order which does not prize love or beauty above all else. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, love between men is celebrated, described as a joyous, seductive thing that is to be appreciated and admired, not reviled or pitied. When the book was published, its import was clear even though this was just a skeleton of the original manuscript. Censorship had interfered to give the world a sterilised, cleaned-up version of what Wilde originally wrote, dispossessed of much of its free-flowing sexual imagery, beggared of many of its provocative lines. Even aside from its homosexual connotations, Wilde created, in Dorian, a character as two-faced about queerness as Victorian England, which cradled a spirited homosexual subculture in its underbelly. Wilde, who by all appearances supported hedonism and decadence, uses Dorian’s very intemperance to chastise aristocratic hypocrisy.

But when Wilde was taken to court by the father of his lover, he was undone as much by his art as by his life. His prosecutors cited Dorian Gray as proof of Wilde’s guilt, much to Wilde’s frustration. Courtroom transcripts show Wilde constantly switching from confident witticisms to nervousness, as though he was entirely confounded by the very idea of being put on trial for being in love. It took two juries to convict him, but the public shaming had already been done.

The greatest damage, though, was to the morale of England’s queer community. Wilde’s position among London’s literary elite had lent compassion and understanding towards homosexuality. By virtue of his well-crafted public personality, love grew to be many-splendoured. Young men had querulously stepped out of the closet, for if Wilde could be open about his sexuality, so could they. But after the trials, they climbed right back in, threatened and fearful, wiped out of public record. They could not admit to their existence as sexual beings and their world would not acknowledge their most intimate relationships. 

Now, over a century after Wilde’s death, he is recognised, celebrated, and martyred as a queer icon across the world. But we in India must hark back to the trial at Old Bailey when we are told that homosexual activity is criminal activity and that in this country, rapists and murderers will walk free, but lovers will be imprisoned. We are told that the progressive ruling of decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Delhi High Court, which gave life and constitutionality to lovers and couples across the country, is invalid and that queer love is still the sort of love that dare not speak its name.

We find now that we still have to go back to Wilde’s eloquent courtroom defense of his feelings: “It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the love that dare not speak its name, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”

The thing that strikes me as I read this speech or any other homoerotic lines from Wilde’s canon is this: Wilde was not campaigning for recognition of homosexual love specifically – what he argued for was love in all its forms and glories, between people of all genders. He seemed to be making a very simple statement: that a world with more love and beauty would be a better world. There is really no way to argue with that sentiment. 

09 December 2013

An Argument for Meritocracy

This is my third column for The Sunday Guardian.

“What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?”
- Coriolanus, Coriolanus, 1.1.171-3

Our democratic institutions depend so fiercely on appearances that it seems, sometimes, like they are forever poised to fail us. How easily can we love our leaders for what they have done when they do not make it easy for us to love them? And how often are their achievements in one field enough to tide them by in the curdling power dynamics of statesmanship?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is, in many ways, a study of the failures of the overtly democratic state. Caius Martius returns from a successful war at Corioles to be rechristened Coriolanus and find himself in the running for the senate. But while his military exploits have saved Rome, Coriolanus’s absolute refusal to play nice turns him into an enemy of the state. Ultimately, though, by the end of the play, Coriolanus’s weakness is that very weakness that has crippled so many leaders of state: family. And his tragic flaw is the very same that we see in our leaders every day: egotism. For its Fascist interpretations and seemingly totalitarian doctrine, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has the great distinction of frequently being banned, even within democratic nations that, ironically, defend the liberal values of freedom of speech and expression. Such are the troublesome incongruities of the modern state.

Coriolanus’s electoral ambition cannot survive Rome’s republican convictions. In standing for public office, he will not be polite and ask for votes. And, essentially, he seems anti-democratic. He does not see why plebeians must control the state at all – it is akin to allowing “crows to peck the eagles”. He is contemptuous of a public that he feels is unequal to him, a public that revels too carelessly in a city whose freedom he fought for and won, a public that is perhaps undeserving of his services. The citizenry is vulgar and the senate is noble. We are told this over and over again. So disdainful is Coriolanus of public opinion that he will not even reveal his battle scars to them, as is customary for war heroes.

Just as Cordelia will not tell King Lear of her affection for him with hollow words and unctuousness, Coriolanus has no intention of sweet-talking the public into casting votes in his favour. No, he is too much of a patrician to stoop to having to ask for anything. The public vote is too fickle for him to trust – and he turns out to be right, for they turn against him as swiftly as they earlier turned towards him. His dislike of the electorate is oppressive and tyrannical. As Brutus says, “We must suggest the people in what hatred he still hath held them; that to's power he would have made them mules, silenc'd their pleaders, and dispropertied their freedoms.”

But we, as readers, are asked to sympathise with Coriolanus, even as it goes against every notion of egalitarianism that we believe in. He rails violently against popular rule and Shakespeare somehow makes his conniptions seem understandable and even reasonable. In part, we who are so used to tokenism and duplicity from political rhetoric are relieved at Coriolanus’s outspokenness. These battle scars were not wrought to impress us, these wars were not won for our votes. It is an argument for meritocracy, not an argument against democracy.

Coriolanus argues that legislative reforms lie in the hands of people who are not informed enough to make the choices that will alter their geopolitical lives in ways they have yet to fathom. What this leads to is more lip-service: the senate will continue to make decisions that please the people rather than decisions that are right for the state. Even as it sounds like a plea for Fascist authoritarianism, the play asks us if we are responsible enough to handle universal adult franchise, if we have the political consciousness that suffrage necessitates.

Our votes cannot be whimsical or fanciful. These are not the People’s Choice Awards. Our votes must be the result of thoughtful analysis and inquiry. By granting control over our civic lives to individuals and collectives, we are implicitly placing our futures in their hands. It cannot be taken lightly or easily, not unless we are willing to forfeit the many freedoms we liberally espouse. Our votes are too valuable to be given away for battle scars or television sets.

25 November 2013

Post-Nuptial Blues

This is my second column for The Sunday Guardian.

Jack shall have Jill;
Naught shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
(Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.461-3)

When I watched the 2000 Tamil film Alaipayuthey for the first time, I felt almost as though I was watching the sequel to every other romantic comedy I had ever watched. It seemed to me that the filmmakers were consciously addressing the problems that occur after a marriage, rather than before, as is more common in the Indian film industry. It dealt with discontent, jealousy and grudges – tensions that seem, in the general commercial film industry in India, to disappear magically at the end of a film, i.e., with marriage.

Often have the charges been levelled against Indian cinema of predictability, formulaic plots, inevitable weddings and happy endings. One wonders what happens to all the little problems that occurred during the film and are not resolved by the end. Commercial cinema prefers not to deal with messy realities; where there is a wedding, there is usually a happy ending. So too there is music, dance, and the extraordinary revelation of various misunderstandings.

This harmonious state that dominates the closure of commercial fare was never meant to be questioned; rather, it is part of the structure, and is expected and even looked forward to by audiences. The romantic union that inevitably concludes the film is a permanent and problem-free one, almost a restoration of social order: the leading couple attains wealth, happiness, and romance, and, often enough, various other minor characters get paired up as well.

That a happy story must end with a wedding is old Shakespearean formula. In part, both Shakespeare and commercial Indian cinema appear to be acutely aware that they create fictitious worlds that do not (and cannot) attempt to compete with reality. In Shakespeare's comedies, problems that seemed insurmountable are quickly and efficiently resolved and the union that the play seemed geared towards finally takes place on account of these easy solutions. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost inconceivably granted her wish when Demetrius loves her in the end; Olivia in Twelfth Night somehow finds a heterosexual outlet for the feelings she has for a woman she believes to be a man, while Orsino discovers that the man he appears to have feelings for turns out to be a woman after all; Phoebe in As You Like It agrees to marry Silvius, who loves her, when Ganymede conveniently turns out to be a woman in the end; a lucky coincidence saves Hero’s honour in Much Ado About Nothing and the twin weddings take place; in The Merchant of Venice, injustice is averted merely with semantics; in general, shrews are tamed, villains are defeated, fortunes are won and heterosexual marriages are made possible.

That these comedies, more often than not, end in marriage is clearly indicative of an accepted norm for comic closure; that they end happily is more arguable. The repercussions of indiscretions, jealousy, mistrust and disloyalty, which are quite marked and disquieting in the tragedies, are dispensed with in the comedies. However, the magnitude of these repercussions in the tragedy appears to suggest that when these tensions are disregarded, they do not diminish; rather, they are magnified. In effect, this makes the tragedy but an extension of the comedy.

My favourite example of this is the difference between Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. The plots of the two plays are almost identical: the male protagonist (Othello / Claudio), based on the manipulations of an angry antagonist who believes himself unfairly treated (Iago / Don John), is led to believe that his beloved (Desdemona / Hero) has been unfaithful to him. The former ends in tragedy, while the latter ends in comedy. The introduction of a fortunate coincidence makes Much Ado About Nothing end with marriage and, consequently, happiness. The mistrust and jealousy that drove Claudio to humiliate and abandon Hero is suspended by a plot device – had it continued, Much Ado About Nothing too would have ended in tragedy. Hero’s immediate and unquestioning forgiveness of Claudio for her humiliation is questionable; there is also the possibility that this jealousy may resurface later in the relationship and destroy it completely. The (tragic) flaw is thus the same in the two plays. What's also interesting is that Othello takes place after the wedding of Othello and Desdemona, a clear indication that tragic reversals occur after the marriage, i.e., after the comic closure.

Is all really well that ends well? The brilliance, both in Shakespearean comedy and in commercial Indian cinema, is this: the journey is often so memorable that questioning the destination seems entirely to escape the point.

10 November 2013

Innocent Adulterers

I've begun a fortnightly column on The Sunday Guardian called The Upstart Crow. Here's the first column, which begins a series on Shakespeare in contemporary context. It first appeared here


‘Why I should fear I know not,
Since guiltiness I know not, but yet I feel I fear.’
(Desdemona, 5.2.37-86, Othello by William Shakespeare)

If Renaissance women were, in general, a fairly adulterous lot, it is no surprise that their adultery is widely discussed in the literature of the time: the incestuous Gertrude in Hamlet, the untrue Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, the iniquitous sisters Goneril and Regan from King Lear, and even the heartless dark lady of the sonnets. We would not be amiss if we were to look upon them as Shakespeare’s realistic portrayal of the women of his time. And certainly, as these plays show, women’s adultery was more than enough cause for reproof and censure.

If Renaissance men were equally adulterous, there is little in Shakespeare to account for it; rather, men are shown to be more fickle than adulterous, more mercenary than lustful. More disappointingly, they are never castigated as vociferously as women. Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, who swiftly shifts affections when it seems profitable, is never fittingly reprimanded; not an eyebrow is raised when Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona flits easily from Julia to Silvia and back to Julia again or when the same Romeo in Romeo and Juliet who eloquently professed love to Rosaline suddenly decides that it is Juliet who is his one true love or when Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night declares himself in love with Viola, the very woman to whom he volubly confessed his love for Olivia. In fact, it hardly seems fair that Julia, who bore such painful, firsthand witness to Proteus’s indiscretions, should forgive him so easily or that Cleopatra should content herself with revenge on a hapless messenger and poor reports of Octavia’s beauty, rather than confronting and indicting Antony when they meet next.

Shakespeare, though, plays for variety. Several of his adulteresses are not adulterous at all. They are falsely accused and, with no proof, denounced far more than men who have actually been unfaithful – Desdemona in Othello, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Three out of these four plays are comedies and the woman is saved by accident, but in Othello, the tragedy ends with honour killing and suicide. Our worlds, sadly, are more often defined by tragedy than comedy.

A close look at case accounts of slander litigation in early modern England shows that the indiscretions of men were never brought out into the open as often as women’s or even penalised with the same kind of severity. In fact, it often seems as though women were thought of as more capable of these indiscretions than men. Actual court histories show cases in which women accused of infidelity were brought to court and the marriages were terminated with no actual proof, leading, of course, to women being considered naturally perverse and genetically given to adultery. Even female lust is seen as problematic within the idiom of accusation, a phenomenon we frequently bear witness to in the 21st Century.

As the primary targets of insult, women occupy a very particular place in the negotiation of sexual guilt and honour. Insults towards women play on a culpability for illicit sex that is unique to them. The personal, verbal, social and institutional sanctions against “whores” and “bawds” had no counterpart for men in Renaissance vocabulary and this is as true today as it then was. I spent hours trawling through court records in England a few years ago to discover that not only were men less likely than women to be presented (in court) for illicit sex, but also that men’s adultery was never an accepted ground for marital separation, as women’s was. This meant that transgressions could just as well have been fabricated for the purpose of obtaining a divorce for reasons that could include monetary gain, the legalisation of other relationships, and even vengeance.

If men’s transgressions were never made public – in the court and otherwise – and if they were not even considered gross misdemeanours, then maybe there's a backstage story in Shakespeare that we're never told about. One could speculate that his male characters were surreptitiously unfaithful, but that this was neither considered important enough to bring up nor could it be held against them. The likelihood is no less with characters as staunch about their morality as Claudio and Othello (although Iago does indicate the possibility of Othello having had an affair with Emilia at the beginning of the play, but the notion is never referred to again in the play).


These are trifling and pointless speculations that create a meta-fictitious world within well-loved fiction. But it becomes meaningful within the negotiation of female sexuality today to be aware of the heavily discriminatory patterns of our roots. Feminism may have come a long way since the murder of Desdemona, but it is still to wipe her blood from our collective conscience.

05 October 2013

In Defence of the Editor

This piece first appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

As an undergraduate student of literature, I remember a fit of excitement when I came across a Tom Stoppard lecture that made mention of the fact that an entire act was edited out of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by the play’s producer, George Alexander. The 2002 film adaptation of the play incorporated the edited scene and it – I say this with a sense of poetic justice – was the dullest part of the movie. Wilde may have been the genius, Stoppard says in the course of his brilliant lecture on pragmatism and technique at the New York Public Library in 1999, but it was Alexander who was the technician of that genius. To this day, it remains true (and it seems likely that it always will) that genius will need a technician.

The direst fear that any professional in any field can have is the looming possibility of becoming irrelevant. As publishers navigate the very frightening sea of changes in the industry, it is a good idea to step back and define our roles in the book-making process: are we passive middlemen who simply transport from author to reader or are we active agents who transform with our involvement?

Curatorship of any art form is an enormously subjective task. Patterns of choice depend heavily on personal, social, and cultural history and conditioning. Matters of taste and aesthetic preference cannot be deconstructed and neatly catalogued. This is where the sentinels of taste play the one card that will ultimately matter: discrimination.

The shrinking newsroom has resulted, for example, in a frightening level of information overload, and what suffers is credibility. Everyone has access to information, but that also means that everyone has the capacity to provide information. Without a regulatory authority that performs the basic function of quality control, any industry suffers. This is especially true of creative industries like publishing, where the responsibility is so much more: less like a gatekeeper and more like a guide.

While words like “discoverability” and “metadata” are bandied about in the publishing world, the real problem is one of too much discoverability. The problem of choice is something that has, in recent times, been analysed and documented in great detail. Immigrants to Western countries often talk of being paralysed in grocery stores, with a staggering array of colourful boxes and brands to choose from in every section. These are relatively small and insignificant decisions to make, as decisions go, but these are the times when one wishes for the wisdom of a knowledgeable curator. In one sense, this is a role played by criticism. But at a far earlier stage, this is a role played through astute jurisdiction, i.e., the publisher who commissions and acquires and edits.

Publishing is going through the most dynamic phase of its entire history, thanks to the possibilities and options afforded by new technology. The absence of fixed pricing in most countries, combined with dwindling margins and floundering retail channels, has positioned the traditional publishing industry very precariously. That e-readers offer more instant access and wider options than traditional publishing can ever hope to is fantastic news for every stakeholder in the publishing process. But it also opens up a world of options to the author, the most obvious being self-publishing, a model that is fraught with editorial peril. As long as publishers appear to offer little more than printing and marketing services, the author is perfectly justified in seeing the publisher as an unnecessary broker. But the real responsibility of publishing is less in marketing than in editorial curatorship. Publishers are potent intermediaries between writers and their readers because they help readers negotiate the world of content around them. So, really, it is the packager’s role that devolves mightily into redundancy, and not the editorial process.

If this is a conservative way of looking at the dissemination of art, it is certainly meant to be. In a changing milieu, we’re seeing, in many ways, a return to old methods. The much-touted e-book revolution is no longer a revolution, it is reality. This is so true that the term digital publishing has almost become obsolete in industrial parlance, now simply referred to as “publishing,” an umbrella that brackets both print and digital variants. This is almost exactly the same way that paperbacks revolutionised the industry and are now solid, important agencies in the circulation of literature. Social and online recommendations are powerful tools for any publisher; book trailers and viral videos exert extraordinary influence on readers. In a sense, we are returning to a world where word-of-mouth is the most persuasive instrument in the publisher’s arsenal, just like in the good old days. Even within these evolutionary patterns, it remains true that content is paramount, whether we’re receiving literary sustenance and recommendations from re-tweets or the New York Review of Books.

For every runaway success within the self-publishing model, there are thousands of books that languish into nothingness. This is not problematic except in the case of books that might significantly benefit from a few strokes of the blue pencil. A book’s shelf-life can best be lengthened in the good-old fashioned way of improving its quality. This leads one to wonder how many geniuses we may have lost due to the absence of strong technicians. All other things remaining constant, a paperback is likely to have no greater longevity than an e-book. It is not e-publishing that threatens to swallow our world, but the very absence of a cogent filter between writer and reader. These are the days when an author may post a novel online and watch it generate revenue without involving the messy intermediations of big profit-making conglomerates, but that only makes it harder to find the needle in the haystack. If we acknowledge the existence of a vibrant, diverse, and culturally important space like the internet which embraces democratic expression and promulgation, then we must also be cognizant of its weaknesses.

The way forward for publishing, then, is to talk more seriously and sincerely about the advantages of having good editors, not publicists, distributors, or printers. When we, as publishers, begin to position ourselves as custodians of literature itself, rather than merely as its medium, we place the onus for content upon ourselves and we begin to generate finer work, we begin to seek undiscovered beauty, and we take responsibility for making it available and accessible and important. It is a way of taking our readers more seriously, of letting them know that they deserve the very best.


We’re shaping the texture of the future of publishing by the decisions we make today. Even as we map consumption habits, decode reading patterns, and study the import of technological advancement, and even as we channel our content in new and innovative ways, we must appreciate the very specific distinctions within the industry. If our independent bookstores go the way of record stores, and if our libraries go the way of video lending services, we may rest assured that literature has disappeared from our lives no less than music or cinema has. But if we look at ourselves in the publishing industry as purveyors of these quantifiable services, we are in for a world of trouble, for how is one to slap a value on the effect that the editorial eyes of Ezra Pound had on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, or the way Max Brod’s publication of Kafka changed literary history? These are the invisible hands, necessarily picking and choosing and kneading and assembling; they are the difference between a first draft and a first proof. We must recognise that while the medium of dissemination has already changed, the art of it hasn’t. For the sake of leaving a valuable literary legacy for our future generations, we must hope that it never will.

14 September 2013

The Lowland

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

It is one of those Biblical stories—two brothers, so similar and still so different, connected by a bond that survives separation and devastation. Easily one of the year’s most anticipated novels, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013, is a sweeping family saga, not unlike her earlier novel, yet still vastly different.

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers and best friends growing up in Calcutta around the time of Indian Independence. But they find themselves drawn apart by differing ideology. Udayan’s Communist sympathies align him with the Naxalbari movement of the 1960s, while Subhash, less given to such political fervour, moves away to a tranquil life of academia in a quiet corner of the United States. But tragedy in Udayan’s life leads Subhash to be inextricably connected to his brother’s impassive wife, Gowri, in ways he could never have foreseen. When Udayan is brutally murdered in the lowlands outside their family home in Calcutta, Subhash breaks ties with his family and marries his brother’s pregnant widow. Back in the USA, Gowri and Subhash attempt to make a family with the daughter that Gowri now gives birth to. The ties of parenthood bind her more to her uncle-turned-stepfather than to her own mother, and she is not to know of her true parentage until much later. Meanwhile, Gowri is tormented by the dark secrets of her life with Udayan, and finds it difficult to break free of his hold on her. Across continents and coasts, the book comes full circle in its final bend, with a surge of warm-hearted aspiration.

Lahiri’s most endearing characters have always been her quiet, thoughtful men. In The Lowland, Subhash Mitra, like Ashoke Ganguli of The Namesake, forms the introspective centre of the story. But Gowri, the woman who infiltrates his life in so many ways, becomes the real talking point very soon; her decisions, written at first as cold, unfeeling choices, shape the plot and its most lingering moments with pensive dolour. She is most at home in solitude, habitually locking herself up with books and research, seeking out the reticent spaces that give her peace.
 
Between Subhash and Gowri, who are as fire and ice, grows a chasm that is never quite bridged, but is slowly filled and deepened by the hope of a new generation. This, really, is the magic of Lahiri: always, from the slumped heart of sorrow and pain grows the prospect of silent, unexpected joy, and it changes our way of reading her.
 
In the years that the novel spans, a family grows and matures and lives are altered heavily by the revolutions that take the world by its throat. This, though, is a tale that studies the impact of individual choices, a psychologically perceptive and even-handed record of a tumultuous era. It is almost a series of nuanced portraits of men and women torn apart by their differences, yoked together by their vulnerabilities. It is closest to her most recent collection, Unaccustomed Earth, in its haunting, visceral depiction of human relationships and the poignant aftershocks of grief.
 
Lahiri remains the master of restraint. But where, in her previous works, her controlled prose was charged with emotion that lay siege with bittersweet suddenness, The Lowland gives way to none of this. The book has a more glacial, impersonal style, often reading like an objective newscast, matter-of-fact and unaffectedly stoic.
 
At times, the toneless narrative can be maddening. Several sentences summarise with transitional phrases: “And so she felt antagonized by a man who did nothing to antagonize her, and by Bela, who did not even know the meaning of the word.” Others narrate from moment to moment with annotations: “He hadn’t accompanied him to the rally, nor had Udayan asked him to come. In this sense they had already parted.”
 
The dry reportage has its own version of detached beauty. The most morally ambiguous decisions of her characters are treated non-judgementally, as mere plot points, festering delicately under several layers of melancholy.

Restraint, though, does not mean a lack of detail. With Lahiri, restraint lends itself to extraordinary complexity and trenchant insight. The book is dense with imagery, lushly exquisite and stylistically precise. Her taut turn of phrase and her economy with words somehow collide with the level of specificity she is able to infuse into her writing: "Nor was her love for Udayan recognizable or intact. Anger was always mounted to it, zigzagging through her like some helplessly mating pair of insects."

The combination makes for a work of unusual poise; it is sophisticated, self-assured, and eloquent, and ultimately a book with the sort of integrity that makes Lahiri one of our greatest living storytellers.

01 September 2013

The Hired Man

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna develops in the slow, haunting way of an urban gothic psychological thriller. There’s a sleepy, mysterious village with a dark secret, into which stumbles a cheery English family. The story is told, sometimes bleakly, sometimes wryly, by a brooding, Byronic hero with a shadowy history. The book sets a measured Hitchcock-style pace, never revealing too much, littering the setting with murky clues, swinging with delicate, practised ease from past to present. When the pieces fall into place, the conclusion offers no relief. It is cold, lurching, and vividly disturbing.

And yet, the premise is simple enough. Laura and her family come to Gost, a little hamlet in the Croatian countryside, in search of pastoral simplicity. Laura is here to restore an abandoned house that she has just bought, and has her two reluctant teenagers in tow. The local handyman, Duro Kolak, who is the book’s sad-eyed narrator, helps Laura through the process. And as he does, the small village’s troubled story unravels.

There are many, many metaphors for restoration and rehabilitation in Forna’s tale, some more obvious than others. An old mosaic is discovered and touched up, an old car is repaired, a house is mended. Each is a protracted process, a way of healing and returning. But if the analogies are painfully unambiguous, they are also unsettling. Fragments of the mosaic are pieced together just as scraps of memory and history interlock to reveal a troubled narrative. When the ruined plaster that obscures the mosaic is uncovered, it is simply painted over once again by local vandals, as if to say that the anguish of the past is best left concealed.

This is not an easy book to read. It is a harrowing story, not so much of forgiveness, but of painful forbearing, of how we learn to live with our enemies, the people who have caused us the most grievous harm, how we exist and work side-by-side with them because the new ways of the world favour forgetfulness of past sins. We see this every day in the communally charged affairs of our own country – men and women who live with their rapists and work with the murderers of their families – and all we long to do is forget and move on, brush their injustices away in favour of the pale edges of convenience.

The conflicts that shattered the former Yugoslavia into shards so broken that they may never be mended are described only briefly by Forna, whose precise and deliberate ways of creating atmosphere are chilling even as they leave much to the imagination. The lethal aftermath of civil and ethnic conflict is seen in the village of Gost, whose inhabitants are not young enough to have never experienced the betrayals of their land and neighbours and not old enough to have outlived the consequences of these many betrayals.

Laura arrives in Gost with the privileged innocence of the Western world, wanting to find fine cheese and idyllic charm. But Gost’s apparent rusticity is inscrutable in alarming ways: “Sixteen years ago we endured months of candlelight. When it was finally over and we could turn the lights on, some of us were already used to the dark but for others nothing less than one hundred watts would do. I’ve heard that over at the hotel the passing tourists complain about the lighting in their rooms, in the foyer, but most of all in the restaurant. They say it’s too bright, they want something called ambience. The tourists can’t understand and nobody wants to explain, so they lie and say that people here like to see their food.”

Forna’s writing has a layered, nuanced way of texturing the very lack of communication with deep-seated meaning. The collective pain of the villagers repeatedly manifests itself through their inhospitable response to outsiders and their unspoken resentment towards each other. The trauma of their past has been shoved under the carpet, but it is a sentient, breathing thing, waiting to resurface bitterly into Gost’s overwrought present day. And when it does, the village must call upon its every strength to contain its shuddering ferocity.