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4.6 out of 5 stars
A Fine Balance
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233 of 236 people found the following review helpful
on 20 May 2006
This is a truly great book. It chronicles the story of 4 individuals from very different sectors of the Indian Caste system.

Not only does it accurately portray the political and social situation in India in the 1970s,it reflects the predudices within the upper castes and the fatalistic attitude of the lower castes, formed from their religious beliefs that suffering is their destiny and the reward will be in the afterlife.

This story is overwhelmingly sad and also shocking as the reader can identify the ethical question of human suffering for a possibly laudable goal (in this case it is population control). However, the novel is also uplifting in a peculiar way; that individuals who struggle so hard to exist in appalling conditions can find joy in their lives is humbling. It also allows the reader to identify with the predudices and to see a situation from another side. Maybe at the end of the book, the reader feels that they have grown a little in spirit and have the capacity to be a 'better' person as a result.

For me, the mark of a great book is one that remains with you long after the back page is read. This is such a book.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 26 June 2007
Rohinton Mistry is an unusual voice in contemporary literature. His compassion for his characters is evident throughout his writing, going to great lengths to create tangible, likeable subjects. Whereas many other recent booker-shortlisted authors have either tried to radically play with narrative form (David Mitchell) or are ostentatious in the style of their prose (John Banville), Mistry is an invisible presence in his novels. Although he is primarily addressing the bigger picture of 1970s India under the tyrannical 'Emergency' powers imposed by Indira Ghandi, the story is told very much on the human scale. Despite some of the horrors depicted in 'A Fine Balance', Mistry does not pummel the reader with them, and the comic side of the tragedy is never far away. The lightness of touch should not be confused with flippancy, but a taste for revealing the absurd in what was everyday life for many Indians at the time and indeed now. From the monstrosity of forced sterilisation to unbelievably brutal caste violence, the author prefers modest clarity in description, allowing room for the reader's mind to do the rest. As one character observes of another: "his sentences poured out like perfect seams, holding the garment of his story together without drawing attention to the stitches". This metaphor of tailoring is central in the book; the sewing together of disparate pieces to make something beautiful, greater than a sum of its parts. There is something of Dickens in this allegorical framework, and the life and humour brought to the poor and destitute.

'A Fine Balance' begins with the unlikely union of four people from different ends of the class spectrum, and spends the first half of the book looking back into their lives. By the time the principle narrative begins, we have very tangible characters, flesh and blood in a way that many authors today are not interested in developing. All the characters are for different reasons bereft of their families, and come together as a surrogate family out of necessity: first financial and then emotional. As with Mistry's (also excellent) 'Family Matters', the family becomes the canvas onto which he can express strong political convictions, without being overtly preachy. Also similar to that book, we are drawn into the characters' successes but anxious with the sense that tragedy may be around the corner, that the rug will be once again pulled out from under our feet. "Everything ends badly," is a mantra repeated by a number of characters, but despite the tragedies love endures - just - to the final pages. Despite everything, Mistry - ex-patriated in India - seems to have a little faith in his home country. A profoundly moving novel, easily the equal of Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy'. If you like this, try 'Family Matters' as well, and read William Dalrymple's 'City of Djinns' for insight into the historical context.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2007
I was recommended this book over a year ago by someone who told me it was the best book he had ever read. Naturally I was intrigued and made a mental note to read it.

Finally about three weeks ago I bought the book while in India and read it within a few days. From the outset I was completely mesmerised. Mistry describes ordinary life in 1970s Mumbai (the name of the city is never mentioned but one can tell it is Mumbai from various references to parts of the city) with amazing clarity and insight; the characters are very real and I felt as though I was part of the story myself rather than just the reader of it.

I found this book totally absorbing: funny, uplifting, often shocking and ultimately tragic.

I've been thinking about it a lot since finishing it and after much consideration I think I have to agree that it is the most amazing book I've ever read...
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 24 March 2007
Novels with the quality of 'A Fine Balance' do not often get written nowadays. It is on par with the best creations by Balzac (quoted in the beginning of the novel), Dickens and Zola. Mistry's language stands in a class of its own - I would read the book for the joy of his phenomenal linguistic skills alone. The plot is utterly engaging and vivid - you can see the mountains, smell the poverty, feel the pain. In this day and age of quick gratifications and The Goodies Always Win Hollywood mentality, 'A Fine Balance' is a sombre literary masterpiece with a rather depressing (yet correct) observation about life: The Goodies don't always win, and the Baddies don't always get punished. As the name indicates, however, this sad observation is balanced by Mistry's subtle indication of man's exceptional ability to find a ray of sunshine even in the most dire of circumstances. This novel has entered my Top 10 Ever, and I can't wait to read Mistry's other creations. Chapeau, Mistry!
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70 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on 10 April 2001
By far the best novel I have ever read. It is a joy to envision the milieu for this epic novel. You cannot help but be drawn to the characters and their plight. An often moving and emotional insight into the lives of India's street beggars and an excellent reminder of how deeply the caste system is embedded in this lost society. The portrayal of corruption, inherent at every juncture of 1970-80's India, leaves the reader with a sense of injustice and an added impetus to read on in the hope things may get better. A marvellous and compelling book, and a must on any bookshelf!
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72 of 75 people found the following review helpful
on 5 March 2002
This novel is really fabulous. Mistry is a spectacular storyteller with a wonderful way of writing about the minutiae of daily life and weaving it into a wider picture of what was happening in India in the mid 1970s. The story is incredibly depressing - I kept turning the page in the hope that things wouldn't get any worse, but they inevitably did - but the ending provides some sort of closure and a sense of the main characters gaining some happiness in their lives. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. Please read it!
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon 1 December 2007
This is a wonderful book. I read it several months ago and it is still haunting me with its brilliance. One of the best books I have ever read.

I have always been fascinated by India and the vast extremes in fortune that co-exist there. I've visited the country and known a lot of Indians and one thing that has always struck me is that they seem to have no concept of self-pity or even sympathy for others. There seems to be an acceptance in the Indian culture that life is unfair. Sitting around thinking "woe is me" gets you nowhere. However the reverse side of that is that people don't really expect their circumstances in life to change dramatically. The American dream, that "anyone can be President" idea, doesn't exist in India. The class that you're born in will be the class you die in. Accept that, and move on.

Against this background, we have Ishvar and Omprakavash, who are born in a lowly caste. They are trying to improve their lot in life through hard work and taking calculated chances, but again and again life knocks them back. Dina, too, is a plucky heroine full of ingenuity. She is also trying to make the best of her circumstances.

If this was an American novel it might have had a neat and happy ending. Instead life deals these people some unspeakably terrible cards. There are parts of this book that are almost unbearable to read. Horrible, horrible things happen to Ishvar and his family. But how do they people react? They keep going. The connections they have with the people around them sustain them and get them through, and then life gets better (and the book gets easier), for a while. In the end it is Maneck, who on paper has the easiest circumstances, who has the least resilience to life's ups and downs.

This is such a great book and the characters are so real. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a sad book, but it's also optimistic and even funny in parts. What do you do when life is unspeakably awful? You move forward.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 18 March 2002
I loved this book. The charactors were so real that I couldn't break away from them andI was sad when the book finished. I lived in India for three years, to me, this book captures the real India. This story tells the crookedness, sorrow, and sweetness of India. When I lived there, you would see all these people on the street that are in his book and wonder how they live, what was there story? By reading this book, you feel the horrors of corruption,the struggle of everyone trying to get their share, the nightmare when things go wrong, and somehow, the hope that maybe things will get better. If you want to go to India without travelling, read this book. Even if you don't want to go to India, read this book about the strenght of the human spirit.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 12 September 2000
This book is depressing. At the same time it is funny, charming, and haunting in a way that stays with you long after you put it down. Despite the anger that it evokes when depicting life for ordinary people as they endure the Emergency, the politics of it all is just a backdrop to the overiding theme - how the characters cope and struggle to maintain 'A fine balance between hope and despair'. I've just finished reading 'The Tortilla Curtain' by T.C. Boyle which deals in many ways with the same theme. Both these books are a study of humanity pushed to the limit, and both explore different reactions to unrelenting pressure and catastrophe. A Fine Balance is not just a slice of life in 1970s India, it is a raw chunk of life, death, and all of the stages that come in between.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
An amazing book - paints a brilliant picture of ordinary people in India. A huge sweep of history from before independence to early 1980s. Interlinking stories of Parsis, Outcastes, Muslims and Hindus - the characters really live within the pages. In some ways it is a very bleak story (especially the harsh attitudes towards lower castes and the political abuses of Mrs Ghandi's Emergency) but in other ways it has humour and is an uplifting tale of the human spirit. Among all the bleakness and cruelty there is real kindness and generosity. Characters are rarely "good" or "bad" but their actions stem from the situations in which they find themselves.

A real page turner, Mistry is a wonderful story-teller. A Fine Balance is one of the best books I have ever read - remained with me long after I had finished reading it.
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