Sunday, September 28, 2014

writing the generational saga

Irish curragh secured onshore at Tory Island
Glossing the new book releases and early reviews, and finding a novel that gathers up far-flung place settings of nostalgic relevance to me, loaded with topics of special interest, and all in one tidy package, seemed like an invitation to further self-discovery.  No Country, by Kalyan Ray, jumped out as promising.  The novel is a family generational saga spanning about 150 years, beginning with the mid-nineteenth century famine years in colonial Ireland, and moving to India in the years of the British Raj, before independence from England, and finally to North America--Canada and the United States.

Over that great a span of time, there are more than a few generations to deal with.  Throw in a complicating roster of intermarriage and trying to track family lines, and the average reader may feel challenged to fully appreciate the sweeping themes of a family's struggles, reversals, and successes, always at risk of being truncated into obscurity with the potential failure of any one generation.  The book is only moderately long; nonetheless, Ray moves his characters through a number of epochal historic events: the famine that destroyed perhaps a quarter of the Irish population; the pestilent voyages of coffin ships that finished off a similar number fleeing the famine to North America; the years of pre-independence revolution and terror in India faced by an Irishman who fled there, and later by his Anglo-Indian descendants; and ultimately, their immigration to the New World and the tough decades following, with the  inner tempering and annealing of spirit demanded for life in a new, industrial age unfolding there.

I enjoyed getting Ray's slant on some of the topics I felt somewhat familiar with, like the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor.  My Irish grandparents were born shortly after the worst of those years. and left when they reached their twenties.  One can be disheartened reading about the callousness and politics that exacerbated The Great Hunger.  And be no less shocked by the callousness and politics practiced by the authorities in attempting to smother the gathering storm of Indian rebellion against colonial rule by Britain.  Ray uses the deliberate massacre of an unarmed civilian population at Jallianwala bagh to stunning effect.  One has to remember we also had our own My Lai during the Vietnam war, lest we think modern humanity has relegated all such events to the past.

One of the topics I had been interested in was Ray's take on the life of Anglo-Indian residents living in India, which was his own life growing up there.  I had worked in Pakistan (once northern India) as an engineer on a dam and had come in contact with a number of workers from the nearby mountains who stood out from their compatriots as fair-skinned, light-haired, Anglo types.  I often thought of the large number of soldiers in the British Raj Army who had been recruited from Ireland.  On holiday trips through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan I sometimes stopped to inspect the British Raj regimental crests chiseled into the sandstone along the Pass.  Some of these seemed old enough to have been the crests of units that had participated in the British-Afghan Wars of the nineteenth century.  Whole Raj armies had been swallowed up in Afghanistan, and I wondered how many of the present day Anglo-Indian, or perhaps more precisely, Hiberno-Indian, were descendants of those soldiers who fell there.

A reader can be repulsed reading of the oppressive use of police and intelligence services, paid or coerced informers, and repressive laws, in the dying period of the Raj, and in pre-independence Ireland, designed to contain perceived threats of public dissent to political and economic interests.  That is perhaps not much different than what is practiced in many places today.

I think one difficulty with the structure of No Country is a blurring sweep of characters as the story moves through the generations.  There's not much space to become acquainted with each character.  The main progenitor, Padraig, both biological and adoptive to the cascading line of descendants, is aptly revealed in the beginning as a young man in Ireland, as well as is his best friend, Brendan. When Padraig is compelled to flee to India, the situation of Brendan and Padraig's daughter, Maeve, becomes desperate in the famine, and when there is no news of Padraig for over a year, they board one of the coffin ships for North America.  We get to know young Maeve fairly well on the voyage, and it's an endearing characterization.  After a harrowing ordeal they reach Canada, and that's about the last of expansive characterizations for any of the successive generations.

Another concern from a writer's viewpoint might be the introduction of startling coincidental material into an already ambitious plot.  One of the young woman protagonists travels to New York to seek the young man she had known in Canada, and becomes employed in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory there, the locale of a historic fire tragedy.  It was a dramatic episode in the telling, but it seems not entirely organic to the story thread.  Another coincidental element was a chance crossing of paths with a psychopathic character when a Padraig-descendant's family purchases their home from the psychopath's family, which led to diabolical consequences.

All in all, No Country is an engrossing read and is well recommended.


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