Clever is the word that pops up for Sylvia by Maithreyi Karnoor. The book’s biggest surprise is its form. Karnoor is a poet-translator. This is her first novel, but the smattering of poetry in the book pales in comparison to what she has done with the structure of her narrative. The book is about nothing in particular.
It’s about many things that a motley of characters go through—a man having grown up in different parts of the world, returning to his place of ethnic origin and searching for home; a boy’s shattered film-star dreams; a girl possessed; a teenage romance; and the changing fortunes of those in old trades like that of bone-setters in the face of road development plans—but none of it is what you might expect.
Part I of the book is strong, clear, and beautifully weaves the backstories of who we expect are the three main characters—Sylvia, the one who the book is named after; Cajetan Periera aka Bhaubaab; and Lakshminarayan Shetty, his neighbour. The three form an unlikely family.
Part II is where the format evolves into a fresh breath of air, but also slips. What works is that the structure makes for easy reading despite the tough themes Karnoor deals with: there are abusive fathers and brothers, possible postpartum depression and suicide, caste and class issues. The pace never slacks, the weight never drags.
Each of the stories in here is a tight, unique, poignant, and lyrical story. Sylvia is now only a small character, appearing in the margins of many of its nine different short stories. The idea of exploring the various sides of a protagonist, by making way for other ‘sub-protagonists’ in a sense, is another trick from Karnoor’s bag of clever ones.
Calling it anthology fiction might be reductive. What doesn’t work, however, are the tangential references to characters from a few stories ago, in order to interweave their narratives. It leaves the reader second-guessing their comprehension skills.
That Karnoor is a poet is evident not just in the enjoyable lyricism of some of her longer lines (…little Goan village that reciprocated the rest of the world’s ignorance of it with equal nonchalance), but also in how sometimes the poesy could weigh some lines down with quasi-philosophical vagueness (The thousand years of the tree and its sky-length height were joined in an endlessness I revered.)
This vagueness also seeps into two short stories—though independently lovely, they feel out of place in that it wasn’t clear how they tied up, as did most others, into the beautiful full-circle ending that Karnoor gives the book.
To use cliche and say this is a ‘fresh’ debut, might not suffice. Pick it up for Karnoor’s use of form and structure; stay for the well-textured world she creates; and when you close that back flap, do so with the knowledge that there’ll be much to look forward to from this wonderfully original author.