Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Book Review: Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh.


Book: Gun Island

Author: Amitav Ghosh

Pages: 288

Publisher: Penguin Random House

How Long it Took Me To Read: 2 days

Read On: Hardback edition pictured here

Plot Summary: Bundook. Gun. A common word, but one which turns Deen Datta's world upside down.
A dealer of rare books, Deen is used to a quiet life spent indoors, but as his once-solid beliefs begin to shift, he is forced to set out on an extraordinary journey; one that takes him from India to Los Angeles and Venice via a tangled route through the memories and experiences of those he meets along the way. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali-American who sets his journey in motion; Tipu, an entrepreneurial young man who opens Deen's eyes to the realities of growing up in today's world; Rafi, with his desperate attempt to help someone in need; and Cinta, an old friend who provides the missing link in the story they are all a part of. It is a journey which will upend everything he thought he knew about himself, about the Bengali legends of his childhood and about the world around him.
Gun Island is a beautifully realised novel which effortlessly spans space and time. It is the story of a world on the brink, of increasing displacement and unstoppable transition. But it is also a story of hope, of a man whose faith in the world and the future is restored by two remarkable women.

General Thoughts: At the offset I need to confess- Amitav Ghosh is one of my absolute favourite authors. I was so happy when I found out that he had a new book coming out this year and when I ordered it, I honestly didn't even know what the premise of the book was, it didn't even matter. I will read anything this man writes about. Seriously! Anything! I normally let my sister have first dibs on Ghosh but this time I started reading it the moment I got the book in my hands!

Spoiler Alert: I LOVED LOVED LOVED this book.





Things I Loved:

1. The writing was classic Ghosh, just brilliant. Within the first few pages you can feel his genius at work. Smooth, sublime and incredibly accessible all at the same time. If you are someone who hasn't yet tried one of his books and feel that his writing might be something that you'd have a hard time getting into or if you aren't someone who reads a lot of literary fiction, let me assure you this one is a perfect place to start. I'd normally recommend everyone start with The Shadow Lines when starting with Ghosh but this one will work well too.

2. Piya, if you are a true blue Ghosh fan, the minute we meet Piya will light up your day. This was such a pleasant and unexpected surprise. For the uninitiated, Piya was our protagonist from The Hungry Tide, one of Ghosh's best books and one of my favourites, to see her pop up in this book just made me so happy! It is always lovely to cross paths with a beloved character that you know and to see how life has treated them. Now, if you haven't read The Hungry Tide, it's fine, you can still read this book and you won't feel lost or anything (well, some things might be spoilt for you but overall not the worst). But if you have read the book before you get to this one it just adds a special dimension to your reading experience. I nearly squealed when I realised this was Piya, kinda spoiled it for my sister. :)

3. At the heart of this book is Deen or Dinanath Dutta, a rare book dealer. A little lonely and a little tormented by his past. He is on the hunt for the folklore of the Gun Merchant and his story and his adventures and his tussle with Maa Manasa. Deen is a regular guy but written with such sincerity and warmth, he though, nothing very special or outstanding, in fact he is sometimes very reluctant to join in and that for me was so relatable. But this ordinary older man is so real and infused with life that he is someone who will stick with you.

4. This books is a wonderful mix of folklore, myth, magic, history, memory and several other real world issues- migrants, refugees, environment and conservation. But at no point does it feel overwhelming or it's cramped full of things, in the hands of a lesser writer all of these themes might feel like a little much but not here. Every single aspect of the narrative is given it's own space and done justice to.

5. This book and some of its themes, namely the refugee crisis and the state of the environment is so terribly important and critical and something we, as a people, need to know more about and do better, be more sensitive about. Ghosh has written a lot of non-fiction around these issues, especially about the environment, but seeing the concerns of climate change, pollution and conservation being woven, and woven so well, into a work of fiction is something else and, I daresay, will bring home the point to so many more people than headlines and long editorials do.

6. The whole myth and folklore aspect of the book was something I really enjoyed. I, inspite of being Bengali didn't really know much about Maa Manasa, which is strange since I come from a long line of people absolutely and utterly terrified of snakes. Also, my grandmother was deeply spiritual and religious and my childhood was full hearing all sorts of mythological stories from her, but not this one. But a few years ago, when I was in the hometown, there was this really famous TV show adaptation (which is by the way mentioned in the book as well) of the myth and several members of my extended family were hooked and this is when I first heard of the myth and it was interesting. So to see another version of it explored here made for very interesting reading.

7. I am a huge history buff and this book was a treat! From India to Venice and all of this gorgeous 17th century history coming to life was so amazing.

8. I loved the places this book took me to- Calcutta, Brooklyn, Sundarbans, Venice, California and each of these locations adds to much to the texture of this book.

9. The book on the whole is full of remarkable and memorable characters. And it was a pleasure to get to know them and see their world and learn their background stories. Everyone from Piya, Tipu, Rafi, Moyna, Bilal, Palash and gosh just pretty much everyone else had an important story and experience to share. We also get to spend a lot of time with Deen and Cinta and see and experience their wonderful friendship. It was so amazing to be an old, deep and a platonic friendship. The kind of relationship that lifts the other person up. It warmed my heart and Cinta is such a wonderful character and someone I loved getting to know.

10. More than anything else, this book felt like a hug. A warm and safe, sometimes alarming but really a welcome to a world full of magic and history and ultimately hope. Hope of doing better, helping our fellow man and helping the environment. I loved reading this book and no matter how many books I read over the year, the sheer joy of being back with my favourite writer and being surrounded by his words and his magic is truly special. Good writing is good writing, from page one you know you are delving into a superior work. I remember sighing deeply and wanting to savour this experience.

Rating: 5/5

I told you I loved this book.
Is this the best Ghosh?
Possibly not, but it's still a treat and a remarkable book.

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