This book has just been and discussed at the book group of which I am a member. Everyone found something to like in it, but opinions overall differed a lot. It tells of Mr. Biswas, a Trinidadian Hindu (and from a brahmin family, so high-caste), from his birth to his death at the age of 46 (that is no spoiler - we are told of it in the first chapter). The character is based on Naipaul's father, and his son, Anand, on Naipaul himself. Mr. Biswas lives through extreme poverty and difficulty, constantly (as an adult) struggling to assert his individuality in the face of his wife's large and extended family, the Tulsis. His dream is to have his own house and he makes a number of attempts to do so, all more or less doomed until the end of the book, when he has a measure of (very qualified) success - again, we know about that right from the start.
It is a complex book. The society on which it centres, that of Indians living in Trinidad, has its own rules and standards, and I found it fascinating to read about these and see how they worked themselves out. There are constant rows, but they are also supportive and dutiful in times of crisis. Husbands beat their wives and wives their children, but this is almost like an expected ritual, and there is even some pride taken in the effectiveness of these beatings, as if they are a necessary part of family life. Families respect the 'pundit', the wise man in their midst who performs quasi-religious rituals (for example, to bless Mr. Biswas's house at one point), even to the extent that when the pundit decrees that baby Biswas has an unlucky sneeze, everyone believes him.
In the midst of all this is Mr. Biswas, usually sceptical and trying to be himself. And what is he? He can be foolish, impulsive, petulant, naive, sarcastic, rude, and negligent. About halfway through the book, he suffers what is clearly a nervous breakdown of some kind. Yet he has an enquiring mind, reads widely (Marcus Aurelius, Epictitus, Dickens and much more - he likes reading wiring diagrams and scientific manuals as well) and has a strange kind of resourceful courage that keeps him going.
There is a lot in this book. It is often amusing. When Mr. Biswas gets a job as a reporter for the Port of Spain Sentinel, it becomes very funny indeed (he writes grotesque sensational stories for them). Naipaul has a considerable gift for description, and many scenes in the book, fully described, are vivid. Occasionally we get an insight into the extreme poverty endured by some of the characters. There is a wide range of interesting characters - Shama, Mr. Biswas's wife, Mrs. Tulsi, Tara his wealthy aunt, Seth, the character known as W.C. Tuttle because he has a large collection of book by that author (who wrote Westerns featuring Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens), Owad, the 'young god' who goes to England and comes back with medical training and an absurd degree of self-importance, and others.
As the book moves on, and especially in the final 100 pages or so, the mood changes and it becomes reflective and almost elegaic. Mr. Biswas (movingly) remembers his mother's kindness to him - he has thought little about her as an adult ; his work obliges him to visit the destitute people of Port of Spain and the surrounding area ; the family has a happy holiday at the beach ; Anand faces the trials of the exhibition exam., which may give him opportunity for further study after school ; they get a new Ford Prefect and delight in it ; and Mr. Biswas becomes aware that he is a grown man, the head of a family of young people, no longer children, who will branch out in their own way. His relationship with his wife, always complex and ambivalent, becomes more clearly defined, and his death, when it comes, is beautifully and very movingly handled in an understated way.
... and I could go on. This is a 'big' book in its scope and range, and an unusual one. It has been much praised, as has its Nobel-prize-winning author. I took great pleasure in reading it and found it stimulating, thought-provoking and involving, and that seems good enough reason for giving it five stars.