Debut Novel Treads Lyrical, Metaphorical Journeys
By Maegan Dobson Sippy | Published: 02nd December 2014 06:06 AM |
BENGALURU: An imaginative reinterpretation of the myth of the sea god Poseidon and his young disciple Pelops, Seahorse is a coming of age story that is unafraid of plunging into deep waters. This is the first full-length novel from Janice Parirat, whose collection of short stories Boats on Land won the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013. Effortless in its deconstruction of the concept of time, the nature of love and the inherent fluidity of sexuality, it’s a gentle yet utterly absorbing novel that slowly but surely draws you into its world.
Guided by our other-worldly narrator Nehemiah, or Nem, we move between Delhi and small-town India, London and the depths of the British countryside. The narration captures the ten-year fallout of Nem’s all-consuming 11-month relationship with ‘the art historian’ Nicholas. It is somehow indelibly entwined with the death of Nem’s childhood friend Lenny.
With considerable dexterity, Pariat fluctuates between Nem’s childhood, his college years, early adulthood and the present day, in a structure that flows organically, emerging like a flow of consciousness from Nem to the reader.
The element that defines the entire story is missing in the beginning - the moment that Nicholas disappears from Nem’s life. This initially feels like something of an anticlimax. The relationship that forms the backbone of the story is torn apart before we even reach the end of the first page. Actually, it’s a deft narrative ploy that allows Pariat to work back from this worst-case scenario, challenging the reader’s assumptions about how Nem and Nicholas’s relationship evolved, and why it ended so abruptly. Despite their intense physical passion, their interactions seem to be characterised by a veil of subterfuge and confusion.
Impressively for a novel sustained over 300 pages, the book has something of the quality of a poem, in the repeated phrases and ideas that crop up with melodic regularity throughout the narrative: how Nicholas’s name was, for Nem, broken into ‘three shells and stored away’, and the ‘scent of cold nights and bonfires’.
More than that, the constant evocation of the senses lends a poetic quality to the text: from the smell of a secondhand bookshop, to the taste of sea, the sound of the ‘purr of a passing car’ and ‘the faint jingle of bells’ on Nem’s first visit to Nicholas’s bungalow in Delhi, and of course Nicholas’s touch, ‘like an ocean.’ It’s partly this sensory quality to Pariat’s work that allows her to evoke a place so spectacularly well - the Gulmohar-lined roads that surround Delhi’s North Campus are as believable as the forays into Camden Town and Soho. You can’t help but feel that the writer, as well as Nem himself, is equally comfortable in both London and Delhi. Occasionally it seems that Pariat has got a little carried away with the beauty of her own prose, and there are moments where the poetic quality of the narration goes a little far. While Nem’s artistic disposition and cultural bent mean that his forays into reflection are for the most part entirely believable, they sound a little more jarring in the dialogue from other characters, notably Myra.
Seahorse is undoubtedly a literary novel in every sense of the definition, yet there’s also something disarmingly innocent about it, which should give it a broader, more popular appeal. While the mythological, historical and cultural references will add an extra layer to the narrative to those who care to explore them, they are not more than embellishments on a novel that’s essentially carried through by the strength of its story.
Nem muses on why people write, coming to the conclusion that it’s a way of ensuring immortality, “because we are always, constantly, on the verge of unimaginable loss.” Seahorse, though, reads not like the novel of a writer seeking immortality, but instead has the unmistakable touch of a true storyteller, putting pen to paper because there was a narrative within her that needed to see the light of day.