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Alienation - 3.5 stars
on 18 October 2014
Ray is a BBC programme maker of Indian descent who travels to the sub-continent to make a film about a radical open prison. The prison is one where the inmates, all of whom are killers, are free to work in the outside world, and can have their families living with them. It is the Village of the title. On her journey she is accompanied by fellow film maker Serena, and by the planned programme's presenter, ex-convict Nathan.
Through the story , and as the documentary is put together, we learn the histories of some of the inmates, the strong, principled Nandini, the tragic Daulath, the entrepreneurial Ratrap. However, this is not really the story of the prison, of its inmates, or indeed of its Indian setting.
Its is a story about the relationship between the three documentary makers, their in fighting and petty jealousies. It is a claustrophobic environment, with the three westerners forced together into a world where every word or action seems to be overloaded with meaning.
It is an account of a culture clash and massive cultural insensitivity. While the inmates of the prison are all murderers, they are also very conventional, and are shocked by the drug taking and sexual liberality of the journalists. Lalwani unfavourably compares the arguably irresponsibly taken freedoms of the film crew with the strict morality of the supposed criminals, many of whom, it emerges, are really victims of their society. The blurb describes the book as a morality tale. If it is, on this level it is a pretty conservative one.
It is an uncomplimentary portrait of documentary film making. Serena and to a lesser extent Ray are deeply manipulative, working to generate confrontation, trauma and artificial drama with the sole aim of generating voyeuristic entertainment. Nathan is a selfish chancer with no empathy for the subjects of the drama.
So this is a highly intelligent and thought provoking piece of writing, and yet I never really engaged with it. There are probably two reasons for that. Firstly I found the three central characters pretty unattractive. Serena is an ambitious bully, Nathan is a cocky, testosterone fuelled Chancer, and Ray comes across as rather a self obsessed, self pitying whiner. Even when she reaches her Damascene moment at the end, her response seems weak and cowardly.
Secondly, there comes a point where good writing is in danger of becoming self consciously literary. I'm afraid Lalwani rather crosses this line and breaks the fourth wall to the extent that the writing ceases to be inclusive and evocative, and starts to become intrusive, shouting for attention. "her pony tail bobbed with crazy asymmetry", "the English spoken a zig zag of local accent and quick rhythm". It also manifests itself in playing with tenses. At one point, one of the characters refers to a documentary having more impact when it is told in the present tense. From then on the reader becomes all to aware of the author switching between tenses for effect.
So, overall,this is a three and a half star book. It is better than just OK, but I found the characters and writing style too alienating for me to describe it as good.