Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
A delicate, beautifully written and often very moving book.
on 28 October 1999
'Fasting, Feasting' deals with themes of oppression, suppression and escape. Uma is the eldest daughter of an educated Indian family, superficially Westernised and modern - the father is a lawyer - but at heart provincial and traditional in their attitudes. Uma is the ugly duckling who, sadly, doesn't grow up to be a swan. Instead, awkward, unlovely, prone to fits, she has to watch while her pretty and vivacious sister, Aruna, makes a successful marriage and the celebrated younger brother Arun makes an apparently successful escape to the US to study. Meanwhile, Uma stays at home, an unpaid servant to her parents, humiliated by one failed attempt after another to marry her off, her every attempt to find some freedom and space in her life thwarted by her jealous and possessive parents.
In a parallel but secondary story, we hear about the tragic marriage and eventual death of her beautiful and brilliant cousin Anamika. The two themes converge at the end of the main story as Anamika's charred body is returned to her - and Uma's - home village for ritual cremation and the scattering of ashes. The tradition of arranged marriages which has been a source of sadness, humiliation - and no little humour - for Uma reveals a horrific side in Anamika's story. Uma is spiritually crushed, but Anamika is literally, physically destroyed.
The book ends with a more or less separate novella, describing Arun's experiences in the US, in rooms at Massachusetts University before being thrust into meat-eating, blue-collar, US suburbia for the summer, farmed out to family friends through an arrangement made back in India. Arun's childhood has been one of oppression, constantly coached and pushed by his father through a series exams and scholarships. In the US, at university, he is isolated in every way from his peers - even others from India - and from his surrounding culture. His isolation is more or less his own choice - his upbringing has made him desire space and solitariness above all else, and echoes Uma's pathetic escapes to the privacy of her room back in India - but is somehow no less sad for that.
'Fasting, Feasting' deals with oppression and the objectification of women in an extremely delicate and thoughtful way. Virtually every woman in the book is oppressed in some way - Uma, her sister, her cousins, her mother, even her neighbour. They are assessed by the dowry they will bring to a marriage, by the elevation in status they will bring a man, by their value as servants, by the humiliation they will bring to a family through work or the failure to marry. Every woman in the book suffers in some way from this objectification - tragically, they often go on to collude with their husbands in the continuing suppression of their daughters. The book brings out the many forms and degrees that this fundamental attitude can take and the many outcomes which can result.
The style of the book is often quite exquisite - imagery of water and flight is regularly, but delicately used to suggest escape and freedom. Humour and even comedy are threaded through the often serious and tragic themes, making this a very light and easy book to read, but one which carries a real weight behind it - its strength and weight are perfectly balanced and mobile. At times brilliant in an almost literal sense - the writing really sparkles.
The book can only be criticised for its structure - its first 60 or so pages read like unplotted preamble, setting the scene in an oddly desultory manner. We then have 100 pages of very tightly focused writing, describing the downfall of Uma and Anamika. The final 70 pages, well-written though they are, add nothing to the main story and could as easily have been published as a separate novella or short story - although this would have excluded it from consideration for the major prizes...