Frank and Ellie, two Americans from Michigan, have moved to rural India after the unexpected and breathtaking loss of their seven year old son Benny. They hope that with Frank's acceptance of the head position at a progressive, liberal-minded multinational company's factory in Girbaug, India they will start to heal themselves, face their grief, and save their suffering marriage. What happens, in fact, could never have been predicted. Over the two years since Benny died, Frank becomes deeply emotionally attached to Ramesh, the young son of his and Ellie's housekeeper and cook. Ramesh is a smart child who faces no future in the small village, both because of the lack of opportunity and because his parents are a mixed marriage, Hindu and Christian, and therefore not accepted by the community. Ramesh thrives under Frank's interest and tutelage while Ellie is made terribly uncomfortable by Frank's growing obession with the boy she sees as usurping the space Benny would have occupied had he lived. Aside from Ramesh, Frank does not much like India, tolerating it as best he can. Ellie, on the other hand, is thriving in this totally foreign culture, helping out in the village by teaching and counseling the women. Her humanitarian impulses remain unchecked while Frank turns more cynical, exposed as he is to the underbelly of the business world.
Umrigar not only develops the personal angle in this story but she also focuses in on the impact of business and globalization on both the haves and the havenots. The workers at the factory are not only being paid barely subsistence wages, but the villagers are also angry that HerbalSolutions is treating the girbal trees they have come to see as their birthright as private property all because the corrupt and distant national Indian government has leased the trees to the company. When a worker, the local union man, dies after police roughing him up, things get tense. And there's no easy answer here given the general good character and responsibility of the company set against a way of life they didn't know they were disrupting. Neither the company nor the villagers are entirely in the right but there is certainly a fairly pervading sense of American might making right, even amongst the most liberal when their backs are against the wall.
Umrigar ratchets up the tension throughout the novel so that the reader knows a big explosion is coming and that nothing good can come of it. But she manages to use Frank's increasing instability to bring the novel to a shocking conclusion, one that offers no easy answers for those who live and work in the global world. Right and wrong, intrinsic morality and gross disappointment thread through both narrative arcs here. Ellie and Frank's grief for their lost son is palpable and the growing menace of life in Girbaug seems to take on a life of its own so that the reader is compelled to turn the pages faster and faster wanting to escape the desperate sadness and yet needing to slow down and keep the ending at bay for a little longer. Frank and Ellie are a bit black and white as characters but Edna and Prakash make up for that, being more multi-faceted. The business situation with all its complications, stresses, looming troubles, and cultural misunderstandings rings quite true. Umrigar has written a book that will linger in the reader's mind for a long time. Those who are as fascinated by South Asian literature as I am will definitely want to pick this one up.
Check out Thrity Umrigar's website for more information about this and her other books.
Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for sending me a review copy of this book. Be sure to visit other tour stops for this book and see how their views and mine match up (or don't):
Monday, February 1st: Literary Feline
Wednesday, February 3rd: Devourer of Books
Thursday, February 4th: Red Lady’s Reading Room
Tuesday, February 9th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Thursday, February 11th: Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, February 15th: Lit and Life
Wednesday, February 17th: Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, February 18th: Booksie’s Blog
Wednesday, February 24th: Dreadlock Girl Reads
Thursday, February 25th: Book Chatter and Other Stuff
And you can listen to an interview with Thrity Umrigar at Book Club Girl on March 23rd.