A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

I first heard about ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry about 6 months ago or so.  A friend mentioned that this is his wife’s favourite book, she is now a book group member.  I hadn’t any real plans to read it but when it was suggested at book group we decided to go for it.  ‘A Fine Balance’ is quite a long book, my copy is 614 pages of tiny text, so it was decided last November that we should read it ready for discussion in February, thus giving people plenty of time.  I’m not sure about the rest of the group but I don’t think we needed such a long lead in; I managed to plough through it in just less than 2 weeks!  This isn’t because I am a particularly quick reader, just that the book is so readable and I found myself reading it a lot.

The novel is set in 1970’s India, during the time of the ‘Emergency’.  This period of time was extremely volatile with huge amounts of poverty across the nation.  Violence was a part of everyday life fuelled by greed and corruption.  The story centres around four characters that come together due to personal circumstance and create an unlikely alliance, family-like in nature in order to survive.  A widow hires two tailors, an Uncle and Nephew, to work in her flat.  On the same day she takes in a lodger, a young student from the local college.  The four forge an unlikely friendship, and the story explores their relationships and their differences.  Each of the four have hardship thrust upon them, the two tailors more than most, and the novel follows these trials and how each person copes.

The thing that I liked most about A Fine Balance were the characters, the four main characters are very likable.  The book provides a really well rounded view of these people, who they are and where they have come from.  Each of the four has a mini-biography within the story so you can get a real sense of what they have already been through and how they came to this place in their lives.  There are also some very good incidental characters, some good people and some extremely unpleasant people – all well developed to enrich the story and the surroundings the main characters live in.  I really liked how the author uses coincidental meetings of characters; this certainly helped lighten the novel.

The book also reminded me a lot of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck, not in its style, but in its content.  I mean this in the way that the characters come up against hardship upon hardship with hardly a moment for their lives to recover from the previous.  Just when you think things couldn’t be worse, they are.  This may be a reflection of what was going on in India at the time, but I also had the feeling that the author was trying to display the sheer volume of atrocities which could be seen on a daily basis; the characters had to be caught up by these events so that they could be written about.  Despite this, the book is often funny and uplifting in parts.

Although I did really enjoy this book, I do think that it is a bit too long, there were parts of the novel that I felt did not add anything further to these characters lives.  I can understand other people’s passion for this book and I am also sure that they would say that it’s not long enough!  This is how I feel about something like ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, it is probably too long for some readers but I love it all the same.  If ‘A Fine Balance’ was a bit shorter I think I would like it even more.  I also found the book sometimes frenetic in the way the Uncle and Nephew moved from one crisis to another.  Someone suggested to me that this possibly is a stylised approach to the writing, an attempt to mirror the tailor’s rushed and altogether busy lives, however, I didn’t feel that this was the case.  When I was reading the novel it seemed that some of the ideas and scenarios the characters faced were rushed towards but in a structured way – the characters’ lives were never really reflected in the writing structure.  But that’s just my view on it – maybe I missed the point.

If it were not for book group I probably would not have read ‘A Fine Balance’, and I’m glad that I did.  A novel such as this is the very reason that I enjoy book group, and reading other members personal favourites is very interesting.  Overall I thought that it was very good, and I did really enjoy it. I would wholeheartedly recommend others to read it too.

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