A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This novel, set in 1970's India, is about four strangers whose paths cross and bring them to a place where they become important parts of each others lives. There is Maneck, a college student figuring out what he wants to do with his life; Ishvar and his nephew, Om, two tailors trying to make a living that will keep them off the streets; and Dina, a strong-willed widow, desperate to make a life for herself out from under the thumb of her domineering brother.
I found it a struggle to get through this book. It wasn't the writing, the plot or the characters, but the hopelessness that got to me. The horror was endless. Any time things appeared to be improving for any of the characters, another shockingly awful thing would happen and hope would be lost again. The title "A Fine Balance" comes from a line in the book: "You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair." All I saw was despair, and though I hoped right up to the last page that there would be some kind of satisfaction for at least one character, it was not to be.
I'm not saying it's not worth reading. The writing is straightforward, uncluttered and easy to read. The characters are well constructed and completely credible. The way Mistry brings India to life is nothing short of staggering; you can smell it, hear it, see it, feel it. Those are all good things. It's the rest of it that was too much for me. The cruelty, the torture, the rape, the disgusting attitudes toward and treatment of women, the killing, and the lying, cheating police, landlords, politicians, businessmen, spiritual leaders and even train conductors were an overload of evil that defeated me. Corruption is a way of life on every page and it's brutal. I was furious at the injustice all the way through the book, which is not a bad thing, but there was no relief. A line from the book summed it up for me: "Life seemed so hopeless, with nothing but misery for everyone...". It was agonizing reading what these people went through.
I feel guilty about my response to it because I believe we need books that reveal the world's uncomfortable truths, and I make myself read a certain amount of them. Unfortunately I didn't find the balance in "A Fine Balance". I've never been so drained at the end of a book, but it affected me deeply and I would never recommend you not read it. If I had read it at a different time in my life would I have reacted differently? Maybe, probably, but I'll never know.
All of this brings up questions for me: As readers, what is our responsibility? Do we owe it to the author to finish the book? As citizens of the world, do we owe it to people living in these horrible conditions to keep reading, because if they have to live like that surely we can force ourselves to at least read their stories? Or is it simply a matter of not reading what you aren't enjoying and moving on to something else? I want to hear what you think.