Sunday, June 30, 2013

NetGalley Review: Helium by Jaspreet Singh

HeliumDisclaimer: I received an e-copy of this book for review from NetGalley.

I was recently browsing around on NetGalley after, oh... Two years of inactivity there, or so. I saw this book, and it looked really intriguing to me. I loved the cover, and the book description sounded fantastic - a story about India's turbulent recent history, the assassination of Indira Gandhi... Intriguing stuff.

I really wanted to love this book. I was hoping that it would speak to me and allow me to learn something of what it was like to live through such things. I was hoping for this book to be beautifully written and expertly told. But unfortunately, almost immediately, I struggled with this book.

I ended up giving up on this at 20%. I just couldn't get into the story. I couldn't follow the narration - it jumped around, not only in time and memory, but between random, unconnected thoughts and observations. There are sentence fragments, sentences that seem out of order, and jumbled phrases that just don't make sense to me.

The writing and the style just didn't work for me. It's told in first person narrative, and I found it extremely hard to get into the main character and narrator's head. In fact, I didn't even know his name until around the 19% mark. (It's Raj.) Not that that's a requirement for me, but it does help to get to know the person I'm supposed to be closest to in the story. It also felt distant and cold, as though Raj's own history meant nothing to him. He describes witnessing a mob of men throw a tire over his teacher - his friend - and set him on fire as though it was nothing. He tells the story as though he's describing paint drying.

And intermixed in all of this is information about Raj's work in rheology - the science of flow.

But there seems to be no flow to this story. It's not fluid or smooth - it's choppy and jumps around seemingly without rhyme or reason. There are many words, and it's possible, even likely, that they'd come together in the end and form a cohesive whole, but even getting to 20% was a struggle for me.

Here's a quote to illustrate, from 8%:
"I shall never forget my last visit to his office. The 19th of October, a faultless day like any other. The laburnum quivered in the sun, I recall, so bright they hurt my eyes. I placed the borrowed item on his heavily cluttered desk; sheets and memos spilling over, glacial mountains and ice fields of exam papers and clogged lava flows of lab reports. Still weak, recovering from jaundice, I was in a way rediscovering the world; everything around me felt new and alien. Even the smells I took for granted in the past, and the dewy brilliance of objects. Without wasting words he checked if I had the energy to walk back to the hostel. I nodded. But he insisted on driving me in his white Fiat, which he drove slowly for my sake. On the way we talked about Maxwell's demons, he was also curious about my recently formed opinions and thoughts on Levi. I was unable to express myself properly. I said something about Levi's dark sense of humour. How he made use of snake droppings once to manufacture lipstick! Then we discussed briefly the chapter that left a huge impression on me. How the author had dealt with hunger. What really happened inside the 'concentration' camp. Up until that day the words 'dilute' and 'concentrated' were simply connected to the density of molecules in solutions (and not human beings). The writing had disturbed me, pushed me out of my comfort level. Those pages were set in a world I did not know."
This paragraph is just all over the place. It's random, and vague. It left me confused and didn't add anything to the story.

I'm sure that this book is amazing, or could be amazing, for the right reader. I don't think that I'm that reader. I no longer have the patience to wade through jungles of words to try to piece them into a story. I need more cohesion.

It's also possible that this is not the final copy as well. I am not able to find anything saying for sure whether this has been corrected yet, so it is likely it has not. If that's the case, further editing may resolve some of the things I struggled with. But as it stands, I just don't think this book is for me.

1 comment:

  1. You are not alone, I gave up too. Now I'm wonder if I'll have the same experience with the Singh book I have at home.