The Golden Son- A Review
Wednesday, January 20, 20160 Comments
People who pay attention to literary fiction- as opposed to genre fiction- will perhaps have noticed two dominant styles in the field over the past few years. Historical fiction (Hillary Mantel & Wolf Hall, Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North) is the first, and the second is diaspora fiction (Kiran Desai & The Inheritance of Loss, Marlon James & A Brief History of Seven Killings). The readers in my family have always been drawn to the latter, because we have had two big migrations in two/three generations. My grandparents migrated from India to Malaysia, and two uncles migrated from Malaysia to Canada, a feat I'm now hoping to repeat. With that, I hope you understand where I'm coming from.
Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son is her second novel, released to considerable acclaim in Canada last fall, and due for an American release at the end of the month. It follows Anil Patel, a young Gujarati leaving his village to begin a medical residency in a Dallas hospital. He leaves behind a wealthy, high caste family; the Moti Patels own vast tracts of land, a big house with servants and Anil’s father, Jayant Patel, is the arbiter of social and cultural disputes in the village. Anil’s leaving will end up complicating this state of affairs, particularly, in a memorable exchange in the middle of the story, when he attempts to apply newfound Western principles to the old order back home.
The other complication stemming from Anil’s departure is Leena, a local girl with whom he shares a tentative romance as a young boy. Leena has a full, albeit rather grim, arc of her own. Ms. Gowda does a good job with Leena as a character and with her life as a subplot. She has a difficult life, reflective of the realities facing many rural Indian women, but she's very likeable, and tough as nails. It's impossible not to like her, and her innocence-turned-weary-grit is a compelling and satisfying progression. If I have an issue with Leena at all, it's a minor deus ex machina at a critical point in her life that neatly and conveniently enables a permanent economic upward swing, towards the end of the story. It might not be as jarring if the author didn't include a couple of embellishments that cast a pall of doubt over the carefully constructed realism.
Actually, let's talk about contrivance some more. Anil’s story, particularly in Act IV, is littered with them. Minor characters step up with convenient solutions to big problems, and Anil's presence suddenly reawakens an old plot line (that most readers would have made peace with by then) for the sake of a convenient, lawful good ending. To my mind, Ms. Gowda's had at least one natural ending point to her story, which would have seemed more logical, if a little sad. Considering her courage in subverting earlier strokes of good fortune, missing this for the sake of an uncomplicated happy ending was a bit of a let down. It's the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows all over again, and as with the reaction to that plot point, your mileage may vary. I felt it was odd.
That being said, there is a lot to like about The Golden Son. Both settings- rural India and urban Texas- are vividly realized and packed with detail, and Ms. Gowda's is excellent at using both these settings as a means of character development, both in terms of man vs self, and man vs environment. That's not to say that both major character arcs are terribly original; fans of diaspora fiction will occasionally find it too conventional, but there is something to be said for doing the basics well. The bits that really stand out are the village arbitration sessions, as we see Anil grow in wisdom and social understanding from meeting to meeting. While Ms Gowda never goes as far as to explicitly question the fundamental rules surrounding rural India, these little vignettes are an interesting peek at how these societies function. Ultimately, however, I found the conclusion to Anil’s relationship with these arbitrations rather bewildering, considering the care Ms. Gowda takes to emphasize his growth earlier in the story. As a final sore point, a couple of characters feel underdeveloped, because they are earlier humanized to some degree, then dropped in the final two acts.
Ultimately, The Golden Son is a good, but not great, novel. Fans of diaspora fiction will find it safe, even predictable. The book does, however, make for an excellent introduction to the genre, and readers unfamiliar with India will likely enjoy it immensely.