The City Son by Samrat Upadhyay

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The City Son by Samrat Upadhyay

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A tale of revenge and sexual abuse in modern Kathmandu did not really win me over, no matter how stark and emotionally precise the writing.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Soho Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781616953812

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Didi lives in a remote Nepali village. Her husband, always referred to by what is presumably a title rather than a name the Masterji teaches in the city. He rarely comes home to see his wife and sons.

Theirs was an arranged marriage, and Didi was not a physically attractive young woman. Quite the opposite in fact. But she was even tempered hard-working and (or should that be 'but'?) in bed she was ferocious. Like a tiger, she clawed and scratched and was inexhaustibleuncaring of the noise… she made him cry, gasp, and, occasionally, shout..

This early description gives us some insight into the kind of woman Upadhyay has chosen for his heroine… or as it will transpire his anti-heroine.

One day a stranger comes to the village, a bringer of evil tidings. Who this visitor is, or what her motives are, are never really explored, but the news she brings sets in train the rest of the story. She brings news that the Masterji has taken another wife. A young and beautiful wife, and they have a young and beautiful son.

Without missing a beat, Didi determines there and then to track down her errant husband and not so much 'win' him back, but take him back by sheer force of will.

This she does in short order. Not content with getting back her husband and ousting his beautiful second wife, she sets about both destroying him and winning - or taking - his beautiful son.

What follows is a story of abuse and neglect and twisted love. It's hard to see the motivations that lurk beneath Didi's character. Perhaps those early descriptions are meant to signal that we should hate her, that everything that follows is designed to be a vicious revenge upon all those who have wronged her. But equally, she has been wronged and while the form of her domination of her husband's son cannot be remotely sanctioned, it could be underlain by her own desperate need for love and physical connection that she has been denied.

Set mostly in Kathmandu, the story could play out in any modern city. As one more call on the world to realise that Nepal isn't some ancient Shangri-la, but a 21st century city with all the hidebound moralising and secret sin of the rest of the planet, The City Son is undeniably effective.

And to be fair, had the story been set anywhere else, I wouldn't have been interested. I knew nothing of the author but had just returned from the country when it was offered to me.

I did not enjoy this book. Largely, because it's not the sort of thing I would normally read. It is pure fiction, but it is very much in the stream of the vogue for misery memoirs. The wronged wife damaging the husband's son who takes on a wife of his own out of some form of duty, but fails to connect with her thus almost forcing her back towards her own shameful past…

Most of what happens in the book is deeply unpleasant.

Although it ends on a note of some kind of optimism, I found it thoroughly dispiriting. Not because it dispels western romanticised notions of its author's homeland – that for me was one of its redeeming features. I recognised not just the streets and scenes of the capital, but some of the expressions and attitudes of those who populate it. No, my problem with it is that there isn't a single character in it who elicits any empathy – let alone sympathy.

I thoroughly disliked each and every one of them. As a result I was somewhat irritated by allowing myself to share their lives.

The slip-cover blurb finishes Potent, disturbing, and gorgeously stark in tis execution, The City Son is a novel not soon forgotten. I'm all too afraid that might actually be true.

Since finishing the book, I've been trying to figure out what it is that makes me so negative towards it. Two things, I conclude.

Firstly, it is utterly devoid of humour. Even in the darkest of novels, there is usually some satirical twist or occasional aside that leavens the tone. I found none in here. The whole was unremittingly bleak.

Then, humanity. There's scarcely an ounce of human warmth in any of the characters. Even Mahesh Uncle who takes in Tarun (the City Son of the title) and his mother, now suffering a nervous breakdown under the strain of her banishment, and gives them a home in his expensive gated residence, comes across as a lonely, ambitious, and ultimately selfish man, despite – or because of – his housekeeper's assertions to the contrary. Sex and control are at the heart of the story. As a result love (in any way shape or form) does not get a look in.

A cold, heartless, tale, then. One not without some intellectual merit, and skilfully told – but I cannot on a personal level recommend it.

For more, perhaps simpler, stories from this part of the world, I'd recommend Parajuly's short story collection The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly

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Krishna Bhatt said:

I liked the review of the book done by Lesley Mason. I look ahead for more reviews from her. Thanks Krishna bhatt. Author, Kathmandu