A House For Mr. Biswas, the acclaimed novel by Nobel prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul, reads like an epic and is clearly the work of an accomplished writer. Naipaul's depiction of one man's life, beginning with his birth in rural Trinidad at which time he is labeled as "cursed" by the local holy man, is an extraordinary account of an ordinary man and his struggle to provide for his family. So why does this book, filled with beautiful prose, memorable characters, and heart-wrenching events, feel like it is about 200 pages too long?
Mohun Biswas, an ethnic-Indian born in Trinidad in the early 1900s, abruptly marries into the Tulsi family, and his life is from that point on dominated by his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs. Tulsi, and Seth, her brother and head of the Tulsi household. The Tulsi family provides him with housing and various jobs, ranging from managing their dry goods store to supervising their farm, but they also provide him with constant harassment and grief. Mr. Biswas longs for the day that he can own his own home, and his pursuit of this goal is the novel's persistent theme which gives it its epic quality.
A House For Mr. Biswas is, ultimately, a finely crafted novel. Naipaul's powerful, moving prose beautifully depicts the struggle, pain, and sorrow of one man's life; at the same time he paints a calm and full portrait of the ethnic-Indian experience in rural Trinidad. In many ways, this book does for rural Trinidad what John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath does for Salinas, California. It's only flaw, perhaps, is that the book's length feels somewhat forced, as if Naipaul believed that a 600-page novel would more powerfully depict his character's tragic nature than, say, a 400-page novel. The truth is that Naipaul's prose is so robust, and his characters so genuinely human, that A House For Mr. Biswas achieved the status of epic long before its final page.