Return of the Black Dog

hamlet

I’m still swamped by those recordings in my brain, “I should do something, I should call someone, I should write a book, I should learn to tap dance.” The ‘I shoulds’ are on constant parade, they never end. Every time I get a blast of one of those ‘I shoulds’ or a memory of screwing up it feels like someone’s sticking a syringe in my heart and squirting something toxic straight into an artery. I try to deflect or accept those painful ‘I shoulds.’ It’s like I’m babysitting myself, trying to sooth a sick child.

Ruby Wax

I’ve known for days that I was sliding back down into depression. I’ve been blaming myself for everything, from my son being allergic to the cat to over-catering the party on Christmas Eve (we’re still guiltily consuming cocktail sausages, and probably will be until someone succumbs to food poisoning, and then I’ll feel guilty about that). Here I sit, caught between the feeling that nobody ought to be depressed at Christmas, surrounded by their loving family and in a comfortable home, and the looming, half-dreaded and half-anticipated New Year exhortations to make meaningful, significant changes. I should not be miserable, I tell myself. I should not feel as if making a simple phone call to thank someone for their Christmas present is a mountain I cannot scale. I should be visiting the health club, cleaning up the leaves out in the garden, doing the ironing – anything to make me feel I am not completely and hopelessly useless.

It is one of life’s sad ironies that I am surrounded by piles of lovely Christmas gifts and feel unable to enjoy any of them. It is not that I lack gratitude. I am just used to others setting the agenda and can’t seem to give myself permission to choose to do something I want and then go ahead and do it. I cannot allow myself the holiday that others are righty enjoying.

We have loads to celebrate and even more to look forward to, but none of it seems at all signifiant right now. Having recently observed the child of an acquaintance commit suicide, I know beyond all doubt that I could never put my family through something so agonising and so public. I know beyond doubt that they love me dearly. What I don’t really understand is why they bother.

And at an intellectual level, I know why I feel like this. I feel like this because I drove myself hard all through the run-up to Christmas, going the extra mile at work, taking on the immense and wonderful challenge of learning a foreign language, recovering from a ghastly tummy bug and trying throughout not to let my fragile fitness regime collapse (in the end it did, and that’s something else I can’t quite forgive myself for). And then came Christmas, and my partner’s retirement, and three parties in the space of a week, and then I cooked and washed up Christmas lunch. I did a good job, and I know the family appreciated it. It’s okay to be exhausted, it really is. It’s okay to miss one or two Italian lessons rather than repeat them over in a parrot-like trance and retain almost nothing of them.

I won’t feel like this forever. I might only feel like this until tomorrow. I feel this way now because it’s the first day for ages I have only had myself to look out for, and I’ve been distracting myself by looking out for everybody else, whether they asked me to or not. My kids have reached the age where I cannot live their lives for them, or even through them. That is something I actually wanted to happen. And I will find new goals, and new challenges, and new dreams, and it is all waiting for me, and the fact that right now all I want to do is crawl under a duvet and sob into a pillow does not negate any of that at all.

And if someone like Ruby Wax can be so beautifully and courageously honest about depression, then there is hope for us all.

In Heaven the tills are ringing

I’ve rather lost track of all the secular milestones that have dotted this year’s run-up to Christmas. Once people celebrated saints days. Now that we all worship at the altar of Mammon these have been replaced by secular equivalents. First came the US import of Black Friday, closely followed by Manic Monday (or whatever it was), and now we have Panic Saturday. Most of my Christmas shopping was done online and well in advance, since I’m a veteran of long queues at the Post Office and the hit and miss approach of Yodel Deliveries.

It’s interesting to speculate how much of this consumer spending is fuelled by credit cards. I’m not about to add to the many arguments against getting into debt. What worries me rather more is that I find it increasingly difficult to rely on my debit card, my preferred method of paying for things in the majority of cases. The reason is not that I keep going overdrawn; I’m very careful about that since the charges are, to say the least, a massive disincentive to misbehave. No, the problem is that NatWest in its wisdom has decided that an increasing number of my transactions appear to be fraudulent, so they take it upon themselves to block my card and don’t even have the good manners to send me a text and let me know.

It’s happened three times this week. What seemed to trigger it was a modest donation to Crisis at Christmas through the Guardian website. At least they let me know that time, albeit several hours later. They also blocked an Ocado order until I told them it was okay, which I promptly did only to log on to the Ocado website a few minutes ago and discover the payment is still outstanding and I’m blacklisted. Admittedly the bill was a bit higher than usual, but not as high as one from a couple of weeks ago that went through with no problem.

Then yesterday I was contacted by the farm shop who are providing our Christmas dinner. Again, my card had been blocked. No warning this time – I simply had to apologise and slap it on my credit card. This is a supplier we have dealt with regularly over the past couple of years, and trust completely. Frankly, they have better things to do at this time of year than phone their regulars for the privilege of getting paid for the stuff they are busily sending out.

I called NatWest, a process that took the best part of an hour since even their Customer Service team didn’t seem to know the difference between a Fraud Prevention Team and a Fraud Damage Limitation Team, and I was put on hold on three different numbers. I was promised – at least in theory – that they had fouled up and next time they would let me know. I was not completely reassured, however. From now on I’ll be carrying around more cash than I am comfortable doing – it seems that NatWest’s concern for my financial safety doesn’t extend to cover the possibility that I could be mugged on the High Street – or falling back on my flexible friend.

I do appreciate that it’s necessary to be vigilant, but what concerns me most about all this is not just the embarrassment and inconvenience involved –  it’s the creeping implication that people who don’t whack everything on plastic as a matter of course are somehow acting suspiciously. Nobody called from the credit card company to ask why I was paying for turkey on the never-never.

All this sounds like a very middle-class problem, prompting charges that I should shut up and be grateful that I’m not among the thousands looking to food banks to put food on the table this Christmas. There is a common thread, however. It’s a more nuanced version of the social exclusion suffered, far more seriously, by people who lack the regular income that makes them attractive to modern banks. It’s part of the problem that leaves poor people paying punitive charges because their benefits were stopped without their knowledge, and forking out £2.50 to take out £10.00 in cash at their local corner shop or pub because they can’t afford the bus fare to a cashpoint. If this is the way that NatWest treats a customer of nearly 30 years standing with an above-average household income, who hasn’t overdrawn by a penny for years, I shudder to think of the contempt they must have for someone with serious financial difficulties.

And I am old-fashioned enough to actually prefer paying for something at the time I actually get it, an attitude that seems to be regarded as somewhere between quaintly retro and downright socially irresponsible. I am being made to feel like a criminal, simply for wanting to spend my own money. By a bank that wouldn’t exist if my taxes hadn’t rescued them six years ago – and now our local services are being shredded by cuts to pay for that.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it? Happy Christmas. Even if you work for NatWest.

Food Banks and Libraries – better together?

books

The recent all-party inquiry into food poverty in Britain is a calm, compassionate and eminently sensible document, and in his forward the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, puts his finger on precisely the reason why so many people in our society are falling into desperate straits. It is more than a matter of falling incomes and rising prices for housing and utilities, though certainly these are a huge factor. It is a problem with the changing structure and values of our social landscape:

We live at a time when many of the givens by way of family life, social networks, friendship groups, and self-help infrastructure are simply not there. This means that the issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other. We believe that the rise in the use of food banks is a sign of the breakdown of this core value in our society. We see it as evidence that many people are living individualistic and isolated lives, and the natural and vital relationships between people do not exist as once they did. To use shorthand, the glue that once held us together and gave life to our communities has gone.

Without wanting to fall in to the trap of talking of a golden age when we all lived in cosy terraced streets with our auntie around the corner and everyone knowing each other’s business, these words are so true. Rampant, uncontrolled capitalism has made us into the iSociety, where people have to navigate a shifting, complicated, ever-changing landscape of temporary casual jobs, short-term privately rented housing and volatile family relationships.

Like most middle-class people, I suspect, I’ve read case studies of poverty and thought sourly, “They can always afford a mobile phone.” One thing I appreciated fully for the first time as I read this report was how difficult it is to navigate modern society, and particularly to search for employment, if you don’t have regular, reliable access to the Internet. Jobseekers are told to apply for a minimum of 15 vacancies a week or lose their benefits. They may have travelled long distances to the Job Centre, paying bus fares they can ill afford, but the tools they need to fulfil these demands aren’t necessarily under the same roof. Internet cafes and local libraries are disappearing – when you do get to one, you may well face lengthy queues for computers, slashed opening hours and a printer that nobody knows how to fix. None of this is trivial when your income depends on it.

The Report recommends that food banks become the centre of a network of social services; this makes a lot of sense to me. Libraries are the ideal local vehicle for delivering this model and, far from closing them down, we should be opening more and giving them more to do. Imagine, for a moment, a library, a Job Centre, a Sure Start centre and a food bank, all under the same roof and open for sensible hours with somewhere safe and warm to leave the kids while you get the help you need. Instead of grumbling that poor people don’t know how to cook, or fill in forms, or speak English properly, open a place where they can access classes in all these things. People who are preoccupied with their day-to-day survival don’t have the time and energy to trail across town to parenting workshops or healthy cooking courses, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy such activities or benefit from them if they were provided in a way that speaks to their needs and acknowledges their dignity.

The people who staff food banks already have a proven track record in delivering services that offer people hope, compassion and dignity. We should be building on this, and local libraries are the ideal place to do it. We should be turning the boarded-up retail units in run-down high streets into centres where people in need can get help that starts with food parcels, but moves on quickly to practical, long-term solutions. If you are poor and unemployed, so much of your life is spent trailing around to desperately needed sources of help, possibly with miserable small children in tow, and queuing up when you get there. That doesn’t need to be the way it is. There’s no reason, other than a society-wide lack of vision and compassion, why the local library can’t be expanded to offer everything from welfare rights advice to a community allotment, and somewhere safe to leave your kids while you help out on it and grow healthy food to take home.

The purists may protest, “But libraries are about books!” That’s true, but not entirely correct. Libraries are about knowledge, hope and opportunity. There are many ways to present these things. And certainly a library without books, including ones that entertain and inspire as well as inform and educate, would be a sad place. However, the best way to improve literacy is to get children reading, as widely and as early as possible. Small children are, given half a chance, promiscuous consumers of books, and that’s exactly how it should be, but books do cost money. They need libraries, and they need to be able to associate books with fun, adventure, warmth and safety. Many children live in homes that are cold, dark and miserable, even dangerous. In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen. But at least if there was a place they could go called a library, where Mum stopped crying and occasionally smiled, where you could get something to eat and sit in a corner reading stories with her, those kids are going to start their school life feeling that books have something to offer them. That’s the first step on the road to a future free of poverty and filled by hope and aspiration.

The Scottish Referendum – Heart says yes, head says no

Scottish independence rally on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh (Picture by BBC)

I don’t like bullies, whether they are having a go at the kid in the playground or whole countries. And that’s why I find myself torn between a head that says “No” and a heart that says “Yes” when it comes to the #indyref

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In theory it’s none of my business. I”m English and I won’t be able to vote. But in fact, whatever the outcome, every person living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will wake up in a different world on Friday morning. We’ve seen all the major party leaders of Westminster wheedling, threatening and emoting like a violent husband sobbing at the front door as his wife gets in the car and puts her foot down. I still love you. I’ll give you anything. You’re just having a little tantrum, darling. And it’s not a pretty sight.

I know that if the Yes vote prevails my first reaction will be euphoria, closely followed by fear and dismay. Euphoria because at last we’ve seen that progressive politics can galvanise a whole country into saying, “There’s got to be another way.” Anyone who’s left a violent, controlling partner will know that sometimes an insecure and frightening future is preferable to a life where your soul and spirit is crushed, where you are continually infantalized. Some of the rhetoric of the anti-independence campaign this week has been deeply offensive. Normally liberal papers who would shrink from making sweeping generalisations about other enthnic or cultural groups have branded Scotland spoilt and bratty, a cosseted baby that needs to grow up. Look at the real problems in the world, they say – migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, IS on a killing rampage.

I don’t buy it. Every bully presents the victim as someone incapable of making mature decisions. It’s part of the psychology of control. You could just as well argue that Scotland has seen the great neoliberal, don’t give a damn for anybody, money is everything, society in action, and said a resounding, “No thanks. There has to be a better way.” It’s outrageous that a resourceful and dignified people who have contributed so much to the United Kingdom and the British Empire in their time, whose capital was the cradle of Enlightenment philosophy and who gave us many of the most important medical and scientific advances that have shaped the modern world, should be dismissed because they’ve become too uppity to toe the line. Nobody is perfect, and there are venial, dishonest and self-seeking characters on both sides, but who the hell are we to lecture them about that? Take the mote out of your own eye first, Westminster.

Devo-max will solve nothing. If money follows rhetoric, which is by no means certain, it will send a message to the other regions of the UK that shout loud enough and you’ll magically get enough money to keep your poor from dying in the streets, let your sick die with dignity and give your young people hope. What’s not to like about that? Can anyone seriously imagine the North East, one of the most deprived regions of England, meekly accepting austerity when they see money being showered on communities just a few miles further north?

So where does that leave us all? Thinking outside the box, whether we like it or not. The old ways of doing things aren’t going to cut it any more. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.” As the major parties squabble over the shrinking middle ground, disillusioned voters will vote for somebody – even UKIP – that offers the hope of fresh thinking. For all our sakes, I pray that the fresh thinking comes from a progressive, socially responsible and outward looking place before it’s too late and the Galloways and Farages have inherited the earth.

The best idea I’ve heard all week comes from Graham Stringer – while the crumbling Palace of Westminster is being renovated, a project that cannot be put off much longer – move the whole rabble of them up here to Manchester. Why does the legislature have to be in London anyway – hundreds of miles away from these Scots that Cameron professes to love so much? Let them come up here, out of their gilded bubble, for a while. See how they like having to do a responsible job after a three-hour daily commute. At least they’ll have the BBC on their doorstep.

You can’t have it both ways. Either we’re all in this together, or we ain’t. If we’re together, then the North of England is as good a place as anywhere to base the corridors of power. And if we aren’t, then away you go, Scotland, and good luck to you.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W B Yeats – The Second Coming (1919)

 

Time’s Arrow – The Doctor and Robin Hood.

 

Not this shit again

Not this shit again

 

I nearly didn’t bother watching Robot of Sherwood, having found Mark Gatiss’s DW writing very uneven in the past. But that would have been a pity, because it was a delight. I don’t think I’ve been so consistently entertained by a light-hearted episode since The Shakespeare Code, which it resembled, probably intentionally. I loved the arrow moment (whatever the Doctor uses to heal the TARDIS, I wish I could get hold of some for pruning my fruit trees), revelled in the scatter-shot anachronisms and punched the air like a vindicated academic at Jenna Colman’s “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…” since I was raised on the Fylde Coast and my husband, a Londoner, has baited me with those very words for years.

I think I may look back on the reigns of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi as a Gallifreyan version of the Three Bears – Tennant was too full on, Matt left me with little to hang any emotional response on (though many disagree). Capaldi is just right. It’s as if the events of Day of The Doctor has allowed the Doctor to assert his identity as a Time Lord, instead of pretending to be human or capering around it. I am going to quietly ignore the ridiculous notion that he hung around on Trenzalore for over a thousand years; for me, this series has followed on directly from the last scene of the Special, as the Doctor comes home not only to Gallifrey, but also to himself. To use a Celtic term, he has come home to his house of belonging.

I can totally buy the Doctor as technological Luddite, using blackboard and chalk and real books to occupy his mind. Interestingly, only a few days ago I read an interview with David Mitchell, the Booker-nominated novelist, pointing out that humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels extends to the curation and transmission of culture, which is increasingly digitised and therefore reliant on electricity, and very poorly future-proofed. The Doctor has seen so many civilisations come and go, and what seems like the white-hot technological frontier to us is just another ripple on the sine wave to him.

The things I like best of all about Capaldi’s Doctor are his intelligence and his lack of manufactured charm. I love it that he can be petulant, irascible and fresh out of ideas. After a long walk around a very big block, we seem to be back to the grandfather/grandchild relationship. He’s a private person, modest about trumpeting his virtues and stating his needs, but not pathologically so. The penultimate scene, when he is able to hear Clara call him the Time Lord of Gallifrey without flinching, and the tacit acknowledgement that he was wrong about Robin Hood, with its unspoken subtext that the universe is no doubt full of people being similarly wrong about him, his postulated existence and his reputation, was a breath of fresh air after some of the fevered posturing of previous incarnations.

One of my favourite Matt Smith moments (yes, there were a few) couldn’t help but come to mind as Clara told the Doctor that he, too was the subject of myth. At his best, Eleven had a gentle, quiet and even humble acceptance of the power of stories, and his own place in them:

We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away….

(The Big Bang)

Or, to put it another way, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh and have brunch at The Elephant House. Not only is it a great coffee shop with a view of Edinburgh Castle to die for, it has become a shrine to Harry Potter because it’s where JK Rowling worked on the first book of the series. If you ever need confirmation of the power of stories to shape lives, go for a pee at the Elephant House. It’s the only graffiti-covered toilet where I’d want to linger; every surface is covered with wonderful, heartfelt tributes to the creator of Harry Potter. Stories matter. They shape our reality. They give us confidence, and hope. They make us the people that we are, and help us to become the ones that we want to be.

toilets

 

I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor's Daughter

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor’s Daughter

Many years ago (well, it wasn’t really, but it feels that way) I toyed with the idea of writing a Doctor Who fanfic called The Moral High Ground, centred around the Doctor’s discomfort when a reformed Dalek rocks up and asks for asylum in the TARDIS. It never get written, which is rather a shame.

Primarily it would have been a response to a theme that was clumsily raised and inadequately explored in David Tennant’s last (2008) series – his extreme repudiation of all kinds of violence, accompanied by a visceral disgust towards anyone in military clothing, when in fact he was steeped in sufficient blood to make Macbeth look like a dolls’ tea party. Beginning with his self-promotion as “the man who never would” in The Doctor’s Daughter, it reached a typically RTD melodramatic full expression in Journey’s End, when Davros taunted him with a roll-call of the many people who had sacrificed their lives while he maintained his illusion of moral purity:

Davros: The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.

It’s always the people from way back who know how to deliver the killer blow. It’s a melodramatic and simplistic moment, and it generates a simplistic solution; the Doctor transfers all his shadow self onto his doppelgänger and locks him away in a parallel world. Even before what happened with Donna, that was the moment I started despising Ten, and I don’t think I was alone.

Daleks are a constant of Doctor Who, the stuff of a whole generation’s childhood memories, which they (we?) transfer onto their own children. Daleks are a nostalgic throwback to the binary moral judgements of our early years. If the Daleks go, then with them goes the charming illusion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show, the stuff of playground battles (it’s a truth beautifully realised in Mark Gatiss’s Adventure in Space and Time, when Verity Lambert is overjoyed to hear kids yelling “Exterminate!” on a bus). But it’s more complicated than simply recalling the certainties of childhood. There’s a part of every adult, even the most liberal, that craves an unredeemable, totally merciless enemy that deserves nothing short of our guiltless annihilation. Because life is so bloody complicated, and sometimes we just want a break from reading The Guardian and agonising over the least worst solution.

So the Daleks persist in the DW universe, while the Doctor develops, matures and nudges towards moral accountability. The Time War, originally conceived as remaining entirely offscreen and unimaginable, pushes its way up the agenda and is eventually realised, at least in part, in the 50th Anniversary special. Moffatt openly articulates his uneasiness at the Doctor committing genocide and, being Moffatt, retcons it – because he can. The Doctor is reborn, with a second set of regenerations, grey hairs, a frowny face and the ability to confront at least some of his past.

"Am I a good man?"

“Am I a good man?”

Can anyone seriously imagine the Tenth, or even the Eleventh, Doctor, looking his companion in the eye and asking her to tell him, honestly, if he is a good man? Heck, Ten spent an entire series not looking Rose in the eye, and she was meant to be the love of his life. He turned lack of meaningful eye contact into an art form. But Twelve is made of sterner stuff. Clara’s final rejoinder that he is a man that tries to be good – or at least one that recognises the necessity of trying, and can accept the need to up his game, is a sign of Doctor Who‘s new moral sensibility. Morality is too important to be presented as melodrama, which is what RTD’s Who largely was, even if Tennant had the skill to spin it into Shakespearian tragedy. The shades of grey are not only visible in Capaldi’s curly hair; they are the foundation of a grown-up moral consciousness. And very welcome they are.

The moral sucker-punch delivered by Into The Dalek – that the Doctor is capable of mindless, prejudiced and irrational hatred –  is familiar enough to followers of the show. But what is refreshing is that it is restrained and low-key, and nevertheless powerful. It makes a welcome contrast, perhaps even a kind of companion piece, to The Waters of Mars, the last Phil Ford-authored DW episode, which showed the Doctor at his most dangerous, deluded and narcissistic. And there are intriguing signs that we’re building up to a meaningful interrogation of the Doctor’s inconsistent posturing on the subject of violence. Danny Pink is presented to us as a soldier, bruised by his experience in battle but still prepared to drill the school cadet force (just as the Tenth Doctor was as John Smith, in a story that revealed him at his cruellest and most vengeful). It seems more than likely that there will be some grown-up discussion of the ethics of putting boots on ground within the TARDIS before too long. More than that, it seems that some malign intelligence is plucking the Doctor’s victims (or collateral damage) from their deaths and saving them to put the Timelord on Trial at some future date – the taunts of Davros made flesh.

And I, for one, welcome our new morally nuanced overlords. It’s about time.

The Lives of Others, by Neel Muckherjee

Ten days ago I received a surprise email from a review digest called The Omnivore – I had won the entire 2014 Booker Prize long list. My plan is to read through the lot of them, including the ones that don’t immediately appeal, and report back with my impressions.

134.Neel Mukherjee-The Lives Of Others  cover

“Boro-babu, the world does not change, you destroy yourself trying to change it, but it remains as it is. The world is very big and we are very small. Why cause people who love you to go through such misery because of it?”

An idealistic young man deserts his wealthy family to join an extreme political movement intent on direct action. In the process, he breaks his mother’s heart. The scene is West Bengal in the 1960s, but the situation has a contemporary resonance in these days of much-feared British Jihadists. To his credit, Neel Muckherjee gives us both sides of the divide. His narrative, for the first 80% of this sprawling, colourful novel, is divided between the Marxist guerilla’s diary and the slow but steady implosion of the complex, upper middle-class family he leaves behind.

Towards the end of the book, two very different people challenge the young man’s simple idealism. The first, quoted above, is the much-loved, yet separately existing servant who has lived with the family for decades and virtually raised their children. The second is a police interrogator, who asks with genuine interest what motivates these privileged, well-educated boys to join the terrorists, and contrasts their readiness to sacrifice the individual to their perceived needs of the masses. In both cases, the question is valid and unsettling.

Muckherjee’s narrative is rescued from theoretical sloganeering by his ability to immerse the reader in a richly peopled and sensually detailed world. This is a book with the expansiveness and sweep of a Victorian “Condition of England” novel, such as Gaskell’s “Mary Barton” and “North and South.” The setting is exotic to Western readers, yet the themes seem universally familiar. How can we live well in a corrupt society? Does paternalism have its place? Do those who have sacrificed everything to build a business deserve our sympathy when their mistakes deprive workers of their livelihood and they protest?

The gilded cage of the Ghosh family, a multi-storied house where they live together, not always amicably, is surrounded by the most abject human misery. Yet their existence is far from straightforward; as their certainties crumble, eroded by a mixture of political and social change post-independence and their own numerous character flaws, we feel their pain as they turn to various crutches to help them navigate a frightening new social landscape. There’s enough rivalry, back-stabbing and drama to fill a whole series of Dallas, and the internal landscape of every character is thoroughly explored.

I didn’t expect to find so much that was familiar in a family saga set in modern India. The contrast of societies is fascinating, but perhaps what stays in the mind longest are the difficult questions and elusive solutions that are the same the world over.

Another review