My review of the Kalpana Swaminathan book; appeared in today’s Indian Express, though I haven’t seen the print version yet (website link here). I was disappointed with the book and briefly wondered if that was because I was too keen on comparing it to her previous novel, Ambrosia for Afters, which I’d enjoyed immensely (review here). But on the whole I think I’ve judged this one on its own terms.
Sixty one-year-old Clarice Aranxa is dying of motor neuron disease and has returned to an old family house on the Baga promontory – whether to recuperate or to spend her last days in peace, no one really knows. It’s probably not a great idea either way, for this was the scene of a double crime 36 years earlier -- of her husband Clive’s infidelity and his subsequent, mysterious death. Understandably, Clarice is soon haunted by visitations from the past, though at least one of them takes an unsettling corporeal form as well: a young man who she realises is her husband’s illegitimate son from that affair.
Clarice’s daughter Marion and longtime housekeeper Pauline try to help her, but she sinks ever deeper into the torment of her memories and (perhaps) delusions. Meanwhile, as more deaths occur and Clarice turns catatonic, her doctor, Liaquat Ali Khan, finds himself playing detective.
The first half of Kalpana Swaminathan’s Bougainvillea House gives us most of the meat of this story, through four tapes in Clarice’s voice (we learn a little later when and why these tapes were recorded). The tone is a sharp, distinctive one, carrying all the force of the Puritanism by which she has lived her life: her loathing of sex, the insistence on her grown-up daughters maintaining their “purity”, a dislike of “the natives” and hints of evangelism, even her revulsion at the idea of being buried with her husband’s family (“I have no intention of letting Uncle Bosco’s skeletal hand creep up my skirt”) – these are details that manage to be amusing and creepy at the same time.
But once Clarice’s narrative ends and Dr Khan’s investigations come to the centrestage, the book’s structure starts to fall apart. Halfway through, the chapters start dwindling in size, peripheral characters come and go, and there is much ponderous talk about the need to understand Clarice. (“Everything locked inside heart,” goes Pauline in her Konkani English, “everything locked and key thrown away. Now she wants to look inside. Can’t open!”) The problem is, the woman in question probably doesn’t deserve such laboured analysis – she’s a straightforward nutcase, a close cousin of the psychotic mother from the Stephen King thriller Carrie. Also, despite the one red herring that the author slips in, the climactic revelation can be seen from some way off; and eventually, what promised to be a compelling psychological mystery ends with a denouement uncomfortably close to that of a B-grade suspense film.
This is a pity, for Swaminathan has a considerable talent for leading the reader into twilight zones by blurring the line between fantasy and real life. Her previous novel Ambrosia for Afters was a marvelously atmospheric contemporary spin on the Red Riding Hood story, a book that drew us steadily deeper into a lush, possibly dangerous fairy-tale landscape. In Bougainvillea House, however, she misfires, investing too much in an ending that can’t carry the weight of what’s gone before. With its lopsided structure, the book itself seems to be aware of this disproportion.
Bougainvillea House is still very effective in some of its smaller moments: in a description, for instance, of a group of people discovering a dead body (“how ancient it was, this ring of male backs stilled into unity, frozen in one long moment of shock…”); a tennis court seen at dawn through the eyes of a weary, bewildered man (“the floodlit concrete was horrific…like a cinematic frame of Auschwitz or Belsen”); even a throwaway line about stray dogs bounding up happily when they smell “the sweet scent of blood” on someone’s shoes. But as a whole it’s dissatisfying. Reading it, I could empathise with Dr Khan’s feeling of mounting dread: I felt the dismay that comes as you wait eagerly for the moment when a book will explode into life, and it never happens.