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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 January 2016
The village of the title is Ashwer, an open prison for murderers in Northern India, which is hosting a team from the BBC who are making a film in a series called ‘Doing Time’ that seeks to present ‘a non-judgemental slice of life inside the prison system’ in the UK and abroad. The incoming team comprises Nathan, the ex-armed robber presenter, Serena, the overweening producer, and the relatively inexperienced Ray Bhullar, Anglo-Indian and nervous about making a success of her first commission.

In contrast to the tensions that simmer between the incomers, the villagers seem to live well together with only a single escapee who was readily captured and no reoffenders. However, Serena and Nathan are pushing for an edgy programme and are keen to set up scenes to optimise its emotional and ratings impact with viewers. Almost all of the action takes places within the village and Lalwani describes this and its inhabitants in a slowly accumulating, multi-layered manner.

Much of the author’s attention is directed towards the character of Ray and her relationships with her team and with the villagers, in particular with a young woman, Nandini, who murdered her mother-in-law and is now counselling other villagers. As the only Hindi speaker, Ray’s role as interpreter offers her insights into the situations within village families which turn out to be much more complex that her colleagues understand. When Serena and Nathan actively seek to create ‘good’ television, Ray finds her position becoming untenable but continues to ignore its implications.

One begins the book sympathetic to Ray, desperate to fit in but unable to do so, but her character is frustratingly static. One perceptive example is how limited her knowledge of Hindi is for communicating effectively with the villagers, and how this plays into the hands of Serena. Her perspectives become increasingly divergent depending on whether she is viewing her surroundings through her own eyes or through the camera lens.

Another disappointment in the narrative is the character of Nathan who seems little more than a stereotype, whilst Serena is incompletely drawn and offers little in the way of balance to Ray’s naivety and sensitivity to their increasing intrusion into the Indians’ lives. Eventually Ray finds herself being manipulated and responds in the only way possible.

At the opening of the story, the reader sees the village through the very different eyes of the BBC team but later they are seen to be equally scrutinised by villagers and guards. As their own relationships deteriorate, the BBC team spend time observing one another. Lalwani has based her story on her experience of making such a TV film and there is much, presumably accurate, detail about recording and filming. At the heart of the story are the ethics of manipulation and exploitation, and how the viewer should be suspicious about what is presented on our screens as documentary.

Particular mention should be made of the luscious cover illustration by Petra Börner that fully matches the author’s evocative writing.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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VINE VOICEon 4 June 2016
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This book shows a unique side of India through the eyes of a BBC documentary team. They are there to shoot about a prison in which the convicted murderers and families all live in a small village. The documentary team deal with some ethical decisions in the actual making of the film. Nikita Lalwani does an amazing job of the describing the sights, sounds, smells of rural India. This was a great read, not only in its unique story line, but also in Lalwani's writing of her characters.
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VINE VOICEon 25 July 2012
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There is a great idea at the heart of this book. A documentary team from the BBC moves into an open prison village filled with murderers and their families to film this aspect of the Indian legal system. The crew is made up of the young director, Ray Bhullar, on her first assignment, the producer, thirty-something Serena and presenter Nathan. Nathan has been included because of the many years he has spent in prison in UK for armed robbery and is now apparently a reformed character. The plan is for them to live in the village of Ashwer for several weeks getting to know the people and filming them.

Right from the start there are very uneasy relations between the three. There are all "narky" and quarrelsome with each other. There seems to have been little forethought given to the work ahead of them and they have no vision of the final programme. I found it hard to believe that the BBC would fund three people to travel such a long way with so little pre-planning.

As they proceed the novel reveals the less than scrupulous practices that began to be employed to get the most sensational and emotive interviews on film. Ray seems to be constantly out-manoevred by the other two.

While there were some good ideas and some interesting writing the characterisations were very vague. Apart from Ray no-one else really came alive. Serena and Nathan both remained very flat. The villagers should have provided a kaleidoscope of emotion, ambition and dreams - but instead they tended to be very indistinct from one another.

The Village began well and had an interesting (if not surprising) ending. But I am sorry to say that much in between was rather dull.
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on 31 August 2012
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Like another reviewer I found it hard whether to award this 3 or 4 stars. I liked the idea of the prison village for murderers and what such a system could mean to the inmates and their families and the beginning, the setting up of the story, drew me in powerfully. The reality TV show aspect did however make me uneasy from the start.
After that excellent beginning, for me it went downhill rapidly. Ray, the British Asian woman, with her belief that she has more in common with the village people than with her British companions, seems incredibly naive about the horrors of reality TV and the effects it might have on people she seemed to care about. The mechanics of her job mean so much to her that she loses humanity early on, she is constantly setting up camera angles, working out questions in her Hindi (which is not as good as she thought it was) and though she does not like her fellow journalists she seems positively eager to go along with their invasive ideas for appealing to the worst instincts of the possible viewers of the show. Serena and Nathan are characters with few if any redeeming qualities, and indeed few of the characters are attractive, with the exception of Nandini who stands out as a figure of sense and warmth. For me, the village prisoners generally were not given enough space to develop.
I couldn't warm to Ray - even her final gesture seems inappropriate and stupid. She is a woman with little knowledge of herself, a 'veg' who creeps off to eat chicken in secret. She is in a situation she does not understand, but the havoc she and her companions cause is unforgivable on any level. I found this book very readable, as well as infuriating, and the subject very interesting. I would like to know more, but without the TV cameras. Ideally I would have given it 3.5 stars.
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This is one of those books that I so wanted to like but simply couldn't. A BBC crew filming a documentary in an experimental prison village in India promised drama and emotion in an interesting location. Instead we have stereotyped and cardboard protagonists, a group of indistinguishable prisoners trotting out their clichéd sad stories of injustice on demand and, despite every piece of landscape, clothing and food being described in minute and sometimes florid detail, absolutely no sense of place. Here's an example of what I mean - florid and clumsy...

'She could hear the hysteric sound of the water pump, calling her with the pleading sound of a trumpeting animal, curtailed after several pushes only to be started again.'

There are three in the film crew. Serena is the uncaring, unfeeling professional who is only interested in making the film dramatic and doesn't care who gets hurt along the way. The presenter Nathan, macho chauvinist and egoist, could not possibly be any more stereotyped. Shallow, unlikeable and unconvincing as these two are though, they pale into insignificance beside our chief protagonist, Ray. Of Indian descent, she wants to fit into this culture she is visiting, but honestly I can't imagine Ray fitting in anywhere successfully. Annoying, unprofessional, self-obsessed and very, very tedious, Ray is liked by no-one - neither villagers, nor colleagues, nor indeed me. At one point Serena says to her 'You are one draining piece of work, you know that? Dealing with you is like walking through cement.' I agree, but it made me wonder - if the author sees that her main protagonist is this annoying, why does she believe the reader will be able to empathise with her in any way? It's not as if she is changed by her experiences; there's no growth or character development which, had it happened, may have given the book the much-needed focus and point that it lacked.

I haven't bothered to mention the Indian characters because the author failed to give any of them a well-rounded and distinctive personality. They are ciphers - there merely to provide a hazy and undefined background for Ray to play out her internal angst against. The writing itself is technically proficient - i.e. grammatical - but the endless repeated descriptions ultimately convey nothing. Yes, they dress differently; yes, they're not white (!); yes, they eat different food...but none of this gives any sense of what life is like for the villagers, what their thoughts and feelings might be. The text is littered with Hindu words without explanations; sometimes it's possible to get the meaning from the context but not always. This doesn't give a sense of place - just a sense of irritation.

I really dislike slating a book, especially from a relatively new author (even if she was longlisted for the Booker for her first book), but although I've tried hard, I can't find anything positive to say about this one and therefore can't recommend it. And my feelings of guilt are assuaged by the surprising number of 5-star reviews from people who've never reviewed anything else, combined with the negative votes being given to anyone who criticises it. Of course, I'd never suggest that anyone is trying to make this book look more popular than it is - you'd have to make up your own mind on that.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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on 19 February 2013
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I started this novel with a great feeling of expectation - I'd read Nikita Lalwani's first novel, Gifted, a few years ago and had really loved it. What would her second novel be like? Unfortunately I found it a little disappointing, and although I'd certainly read one of her books again it just didn't measure up for me.

A young British Asian woman, Ray, comes to India with a small production team to make a documentary film about life in an open prison where prisoners are rehabilitated and re-integrated with society. Their families live in the open prison too. Making the film proves to be a difficult but cathartic process for Ray, who struggles to come to terms with her confusion about cultural identity as she visits a country where some things are familiar to her but in other ways she is completely at sea. And finally, it makes her question her assumptions about right and wrong, and about how she will respond to the conflicting pressures at play when it comes to filming something that is both honest and true to her experience.

In some ways this is a beautifully written novel and it explores some interesting themes. Yet for me it seemed a little like a 'set piece', lacking the immediacy and intimacy of Lalwani's first (much more personal) novel. I will look forward to finding out what her third novel is like, though...
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Ray, Serena and Nathan have travelled to India to make a documentary about a prison village in India where offenders live with their families and work to support them. Ray speaks Hindi but finds it difficult to make herself understood because she does not speak the local dialect.

There are constant tensions between the three film makers and I found Nathan and Serena thoroughly dislikeable characters who were just too grotesque to be believable. To me the tensions seemed to be artificially created for the sake of the novel rather than arising naturally ought of the interactions between them.

As an insight into life in a prison village - a concept which is unfamiliar in the West - the book was interesting. Unfortunately none of the inmates really came to life for me. Ray's difficulties in straddling two worlds were not quite believable. She seemed to look for difficulties where none existed but also didn't see difficulties she should have spotted. I did like Ray as a character but couldn't quite see why she was the director when she seemed so uncertain of her own judgement.

I really wanted to like this novel but I found it boring in the end and I was glad it wasn't any longer. Others may enjoy it but I did not.
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VINE VOICEon 12 March 2016
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a great read, particularly as I had never read any of her work before.

Broadly, it's about a BBC team that go in and make a documentary about the eponymous village, a paradoxically open prison for murderers. They're presence, and the obsession with creating a narrative for the audience back home, upsets the balance of the place.

The tensions arise at every level, from the contrast between the crew's technology and the basic conditions of the village to the discomforting distance between the prisoners' lives and the passive experience of the viewers at home, all mediated by the crew and its personalities.

At times, it reminded me of Ian McEwan.

Looking forward to reading more from this writer.
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on 11 July 2013
Always a but in any review. Lalwani is a gifted writer, concise, imaginative and evocative. And the premise of an Indian jail without walls where prisoners live with their families, being filmed by a BBC crew is an interesting one; the protagonist, Ray, is Anglo-Indian, which brings its own complexities into the story.
No prizes for guessing who is exploiting who here. It's skilfully executed, but far too much technical talk about microphones and tracking shots and computer editing. That kind of stuff is interesting only to evoke a reaction from the characters. On its own, it's like a technical manual.
Otherwise, a good, thoughtful and thought-provoking read
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