Thursday, December 26, 2013

the sweet and simple kind: a book club review

When the random number generator we use for picking a book off the book club list came up with the number for The Sweet and Simple Kind, by Yasmin Gooneratne, I groaned. Another book about the relationship between two south Asian women at the period of their country's transition to independence? Really? C'mon. We'd already read What the Body Remembers, and with the lead up to Christmas, who needed another intense, long (>400 finely printed pages!) dense book? Even though I knew I had a week's beach vacation booked during the reading period for this one, I really wasn't thrilled. I wanted something light. Something fun. Something easy to pack on the plane. 

I am so glad we didn't re-pick. I found the book slow to start with, but then our fearless book-club founder posted that even though it started slow she was loving the book, so I kept on slogging. It wasn't a slog for long. 
The Sweet and Simple Kind - Amazon Associate link
The children in The Sweet and Simple Kind are, for the most part, enchanting in their childhood. They are creative, encouraged to read widely and freely, engaged in what they read. The story is set in Ceylon, which becomes Sri Lanka somewhere along the way. The children are charming (and their parents are fascinating), in a way that carries them through their awkward teenage and unpredictable early adult years, and the agitation and unrest of civil transformation.

As with most writing from/about south Asia, the setting is as much a character as the people. Ceylon has a history, a topography, and a climate that influences the plot, that moves the people, and that imbues the writing with humid richness. You can smell the tea growing on the rich uncle's plantation. You can feel the heat of the southern summer heating up racial tensions. You can see the lingering Victorian repression presiding over the relationships the young women try to create. It is a story of a time and a place, and yet it is a completely relatable human story.

Much of my fascination with this story was attached to the literary references and riches of the key families. The children not only read, they comprehended, discussed, and lived their story books. They quote poetry, history and novels. They nickname their servants based on beloved literary characters. Latha, the quieter of the two key heroines, follows her love of literature to university - a path I recognized - and her rapture with the Brontë sisters is a phase of life I have experienced myself and witnessed in other young women whose access to life is mediated by the pages of novels.

As foreign as Ceylon/Sri Lanka is for me, the story of two girls who love books and each other; the story of a girl becoming a woman through literature; the story of families and their secrets and betrayals and loyalties - it was all as familiar as if it were grown in Canadian soil.

Oh book club my book club, you're so good to come home to. While I enjoyed reading this book on the beach, I also looked forward to coming home to my book club to discuss its many riches. On the upside, December is Christmas potluck and book exchange meeting. On the downside, because Christmas is insanely busy, only six members were able to attend the meeting, and only one other attendee had read the book. I love my book club and the ladies in it. I really hope we get to the 'reading and talking about books' part of the 'book' club soon.

Merry Christmas - from Our Book Club to yours! 

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