“Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people. Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?”

The crisis of coming-of-age identity and the adult world’s inherent debacle over thinking and doing forms the central motif in History of Wolves, the debut novel by Emily Fridlund and one of the six Man Booker Prize shortlisted novels of 2017. Quite certainly a more literally and thematically complex read compared to its competitors for the coveted prize, the initial storytelling and the ability of the author to paint detailed pictures even in an economy of words stands out while her inability to bring any substantial coherence to the plot devices disappoints.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of now adult, but primarily a socially outcast girl in Madeline Furston, also known as ‘Linda’ or ‘Freak’ or ‘Commie’ by her classmates. Her quest of self centres around her new neighbours in an otherwise secluded and disturbed upbringing in a lakeside commune in Northern Minnesota which later develops in her teenage experiences with her newly appointed history teacher Mr. Grierson and her classmate Lily. Throughout the text, the storyline traces its path notoriously meandering across time and space, expanding from her childhood days to her life as a grown-up adult leaving the reader with multiple interpretations of how things turn out to be.

Every page of the book is overpowering, leaving the reader with chills running down the spine and a feeling that something bad is going to happen. So powerful is the narration that an icy, soul-wrenching gust of air seems to blow throughout, and so grim is the dark and wintery portrayal of the geographical diameters of Linda and her school that the tale feels almost haunted. The treatment of the characters is powerful. Even for their grey underlined side which is always distinct, the reader is forced to sympathise with their paralysing loneliness, but the author invariably creates an emotional remoteness which prevents any emotion in a reader other than cold sympathy. That said, the remote plotline and the author’s inability to bring to a sensible closure the various parallel story strands leave the reader invariably dissatisfied and sad.

History of Wolves does not fail to retain the tension of the plot, making the readers frantically turn the pages and identify the scandalous restlessness building up in their hearts, but the disappointing coda makes the novel fall yards short of greatness. Nevertheless, the promising abilities which Fridlund exhibits in coming up with an atypical coming-of-age thriller and retaining an almost unfailing control over her diverse characters and expansive and parallel storylines is sure to establish her as one of the most promising authors of our time.


Feature Image Credits: Powell’s Books

Nikhil Kumar
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The classic novel, set in Delhi of 1911-1919 with the backdrop of colonial rule and Indian independence struggle, chronicles the rapidly changing socio-political happenings through the eyes of Mir Nihal, his family, and the denizens of beloved old Delhi.

Like a lot of people I got to hear about Twilight in Delhi through City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. In William Dalrymple’s own words ‘Twilight in Delhi is not only a very fine novel; it is also an irreplaceable record of the vanished life and culture of pre-war Delhi.” After reading the 275 pages of this 1940 classic, which was originally published in Britain on the behest of  E. M. Forester and Virginia Woolf, I can second every single world said in its praise.

Writer Ahmed Ali has succeeded in bringing the Delhi of the early twentieth-century alive. The story revolves around Mir Nihal, his family, and other inhabitants of the city. The story-telling is so vivid that one can actually feel, smell and sense the activities that are being described. One could hear the cries of fakirs and pigeon fliers, the buzz of Chandni Chowk, the renditions of poets, and smell the stink of sewers, the fragrance of jasmine and the medicated scent of hakims. The changing seasons of Delhi are illustrated so well that the stark oppressive heat, dampness of rainy July and chill of December could be eerily felt. The novel also encapsulates many historical moments, such as the coronation of the British King George V as the Emperor of India, the pillage of old city walls which was followed by the construction of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Even though there really is no plot to speak of, the story remains engaging. The characters are endearing and you will find yourself rooting for them at a crossway between their most joyful and most vulnerable moments. In one particular scene when Mir Nihal is left heartbroken after the death of his beloved pigeons, the sadness drips through the pages, but when he recovers from the loss one feels relieved.

What is most interesting is that the snippets of daily lives of characters give precious insights into the norms of that time. For instance, during a sandstorm, Begum Nihal tells her house help to place a broom under a leg of the cot as it was believed that doing this stops the sandstorms.

Another special feature is that couplets of Ghalib, Zauq, Zebun Nisa and Bahadur Shah Zafar are bestrewed liberally throughout. While the bland English translations rob the verses of their essence, the tone of the book remains very poetic. Sample this – “The night, with its awakening cold, was spreading her dark and star-bejeweled wings over the earth.”

For the love of poetry, family saga that delineates cruel restlessness of life, and Delhi – pick this book as your next read.

Image Credits: Andrew Amesbury

Niharika Dabral

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All Quiet is a 1930 classic American anti-war film based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name. As it turns out, both the novel and the movie are a fantastic find.

The movie kick-starts with the following quote cited directly from the novel, “It is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.”

The film unfolds in a boys’ secondary school in Germany at the beginning of World War I. The instructor, Kantorek, gives a rather stirring speech about the glory of serving in the Army and hails it befitting and sweet to die for one’s country (also referred to as “Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”) It has been recorded in various pieces of anti-war literature how the children ardent for some desperate glory were persuaded to join the Military. In several of such literature the children are convinced to throw away all personal ambitions and serve one’s Nation. Such impressionable children as in this movie, a class of 20 young men, ‘many of whom proudly shaved for the first time before going to the barracks’, were convinced they were born for a higher purpose in life, that of serving their Fatherland. And they did allow themselves to be persuaded lest they be labelled ‘cowards” and be ostracized.

After some basic training, the “Young Heroes” are shown arriving at the combat zone. This particular scene truly describes the essence of warfare. The scene that portrays mayhem all around, with soldiers everywhere, incoming shells, and horse-drawn wagons running about is supremely realistic and it makes you wonder how the World ever survived the War. The film takes a dramatic turn when one person of the Second Commandment (as their group is referred to) is killed by an explosion. The message conveyed as the movie progresses is identical, that of just how violent the war was and how innocent people died for no fault of their own.

The most thought provoking scene in the film is when the protagonist and other characters ask themselves, “How does someone start a war?” Goethe Paul Bahmer (Lew Ayres/the protagonist), the lovably cantankerous Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Tjaden (Slim Summerville) deliberate on this for long when one of them says, “ I have never seen an Englishman till I had to shoot one on the border. Same as they won’t have seen a German till before. The civilians don’t want a war, they want peace.” Tjaden echoes the same by saying that it is when two countries offend each other; it is then that a war begins. The innocent ones are simply collateral damage. It really makes one think that these men marched sleep, fought for food, killed people who they believed were their enemies, but for what? What is it that they were fighting for?

The exact notion has been recorded in series of Anti-War literature like the poems penned by Wilfred Owen. And to think that the director, Lewis Milestone, could evoke the same message in a span of a minute is truly amazing.

The film captures all emotions accurately and the performances by all actors are exemplary. True to form, all actors have enacted their roles to perfection. Whether it was a dramatic turn of events or an emotional scene, the film envelops and overwhelms the audience. The film does get tragic in places but has been kept true to reality.

One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Paul (the protagonist) returns to his old school where Kantorek is delivering a similar impassioned and patriotic speech to the young students calling them out to their “greater purpose” in life. Lew Ayres who portrays Paul gives his best speech of the movie where he states that enlisting oneself purely to extract glory isn’t a heroic deed. He describes how men, even when they return from war, are broken and lost. This particular act would leave anybody in awe because in a period of 60 seconds he conveyed what this entire film is truly about. It is melodramatic but extremely convincing. It tells the audience perfectly how the patriotism of these ideal students was crushed by the harsh realities of combat. One is left to wonder if anything will ever kill the myth that every soldier lives to be a hero.

All in all, this film deserves all the praise it has received till now. It is incredible how even after all these years All Quiet, has survived and continues to be (rightly) considered one of the most honest cinematic works on the subject of a soldier’s life on the battlefield. It has been correctly stated that the film’s power and emotional clarity has not faded in the nearly 80 years since its initial American release.

Image Credits: warmoviebuff.blogspot.com

Surbhi Arora
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