on December 8, 2003
This was a really great book with lots of insight into families and the complicated feelings that we have for our relatives. Mistry is a great writer because his characters are so well developed, you can feel them; and there is always something redeeming in each character and some empathy to be found for even the most vile characters in his stories.
The only reason I gave this only 4 stars is because I have read Mistry's other books and this one is not quite as good. For one of the greatest books I have ever read, check out A Fine Balance.
Seven years after his outstanding and incredibly moving novel A Fine Balance, Mistry returns to Mumbai and weaves readers into the lives of Nariman Vakeel, a 79 year old retired professor, and his family. As the tapestry takes shape a complex thematic pattern emerges of aging, death, family, religion, politics, and duty. A truly immersive book; fantastic on every level, and a must read for lovers of literature.
Like a long, sinuous shot in the opening scene of a movie, Mistry plunges readers into 1990s Mumbai. No sooner do we have our bearings, though, than the family intrigue begins. Nariman’s health is in decline. He lives in the comfortable surroundings of his familial home, Chateau Felicity, along with his stepchildren Coomy and Jal. It is a situation Coomy resents, however, and when he suffers a fall she uses it as an excuse to move him to her stepsister’s - Nariman’s natural daughter’s - smaller and more cramped two bedroom home.
Nariman's biological daughter, Roxana, her husband Yezad and two young boys (Murad and Jehangir) live a short distance away, and his arrival brings out both the best and worst in their family. It strains their finances, cramps their space, and puts demands on their daily routine, and it precipitates some poor choices - especially by Yezad’s - with disastrous consequences. Paradoxically, though, the family treat’s Nariman with a humanity that was lacking at his step-daughter’s, and he is happy there.
Family history is unveiled bit by bit via daydreams, recollections and dialogue, which adds context to the present day’s unfolding events. Mistry’s strong writing skills foster a sense of intimacy with the family, even as we simultaneously get caught up in the sweeping vastness of India and its culture and current events. Through the omniscient narrator we watch family members make their choices, understanding that forces far from their control and events far in their past have led to each decision point. Nariman, for example, drifts into a daydream and we learn of his past - “his ill-considered liaison with that Goan woman” - but with that behind him, he had agreed to settle down. “That Goan woman,” his true love, happened to belong to the wrong religion, and his parents forbade the liaison. Although Nariman later ended up a good father to his unappreciative step-children, Mistry guides readers to ponder the implications of India’s religious, political and social barriers.
In addition to his exceptional character development, Mistry is a master of symbolism and evocation. For example, shortly following Nariman’s relocation from Coomy and Jal’s home to his Roxana’s place, he is disoriented from a sleep and turns his head to look “for the familiar bars on his window, and saw his grandson’s cot instead.” His family home had been a prison, but his daughter’s home - despite the emerging strains - was full of nurturing and life. As with King Lear, who Nariman at one point compares himself to, it is the simple acts of love that endure in family matters, while self-serving actions lead to tragedy.
Family Matters is an excellent addition to Rohinton Mistry’s prize-winning bookshelf (shortlisted four times for the Man Booker Prize), and is storytelling at its literary best.