Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Good Children, by Roopa Farooki

This novel tells the story of two sisters and two brothers- raised in 1940s Lahore by their revered Doctor father and their poisonous but beautiful mother. Brought up to be the good children of the title- obedient, pious, future doctors and doctor's wives. The girls; sweet but plain and sensible Lana and cynical and achingly beautiful Mea, both primped, spoiled and treated like dolls by their mother. The sons; lovable, passionate rogue Jakie and the serious, troubled but brilliant Sully are browbeaten, punished and ignored and allowed only to pray, to study and obey.

The main theme of the book lies in pain and in learning to live with it. Learning to cope with constant beatings, manipulation and scorn from their mother, learning tiny acts of rebellion. The pain of the separation, as the boys were sent to different continents to pursue their force-fed medical careers (Sully to Yale in America, Jakie to King's College in London), leaving their sisters to mercy of their mother and their arranged marriages. A different kind of pain forces them together again, decades later. All characters are haunted by their decisions, convinced they are constantly doing something disastrous, disappointing somebody, somewhere. The boys in particular absolutely ooze neurotic paranoia, over thinking everything and second, third, fourth guessing every choice they make when they are finally allowed to make them. Each of them falls in love with wildly inappropriate people- one with an Indian woman (a Hindu) and one with a white man. Their indecision is sometimes painful to read, damaged by their invisible upbringing and weighted down by guilt and duty.

The complexity of the characters was amazing, as children and as adults. I've never read about such solid, believable characters. As the reader, you are desperate for them to find happiness and to be comfortable in their own skins. At times their behaviour is frustrating and disappointing, at others it's inspirational and life affirming. They're so unique in their personalities but tethered to the same shared misery. Each of the four siblings has carved out their own path in life, whether by choice or by force, and has resolved to make the best of it, which is admirable in itself.

I really liked the constant shifting of narrative voice in this novel, and it was skilfully done. Split into three parts, it begins in the 1940, during the childhood of the four Children, alternately narrated by Sully and Jakie. It then shifts to their experiences in the US and the UK up to the 1960s and the beginnings of their careers. It's sobering to read of their heartache of separation, their frequent thoughts of their family that lessen as time goes on, until they barely think of home or of their siblings at all. Part two sees their first homecoming after decades of separation, and each of the siblings sees the changes undergone by the others, the time and care worn into their faces. Part three sees them pulled together for a third time, dragging their lifetime's baggage along with them. The men get to tell their stories in the first person, whilst the women are only ever able to tell theirs in the third.

Farooki's prose is immense- it's achingly beautiful in places, and tellingly sparse in others. It's lyrical, full of emotion and is incredibly arresting in places- there were a few lines I had to re-read several times to properly drink it in. There really is some beautiful turn of phrase in this novel. She captures the bittersweet elements of a crumbling family so well, the conflict between duty and guilt, between happiness and disappointment. To be part of such a game-changing generation is bound to pull everybody apart and to leave big question marks hovering over the idea of identity. To achieve happiness through one's own means, as Mea and Lana do, one is forced to disappoint others. To bring shame, dishonour and disgrace upon their mother, who raised them to be obedient wives. But to achieve success, as Jakie and Sully do, is disappointing too, as it's the wrong type of success and in the wrong place.

I found the tone of the book quite refreshingly down beat, but with a hopeful message that shines through- basically life is hard and full of paths and you've got to choose one. If you're permitted to make your own choices, that is. You might be a product of your upbringing, and if you're not then you have nobody to blame other than yourself. Often you can't win. Sometimes you won't know of you've won until the end. You're always letting somebody down. Families grow apart and fall to pieces. Even sometimes when you try your best it's still not good enough. But you've still got to try, and that's the main thing and the most important message of the novel. Even if it's going to end badly, you've got to try.

Read this if you liked East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. The same epic span of a family's history, similar beautiful but poisonous women, brothers that are vastly different but forever connected and though the time and place are different, the Lahore of this novel is every bit as sensory and as alive as the Salinas Valley.

Thanks to @TinderPress for the review copy.

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