Book #77: A House For Mr. Biswas
Finally, it’s done.
I don’t recall taking this long to read a novel in quite some time. I previewed A House for Mr. Biswas on December 9 and I’m reviewing it today. That’s nearly two months.
This is a dense novel. It’s a very good, well-written novel, but it’s a dense novel. I’d compare it to drinking a stout. You don’t sit down and chug a stout, or you’re going to have serious problems, like bloating–and maybe vomiting. You have to drink it in small doses.
That’s how I approached Mr. Biswas, so that’s why reading the book took so long.
If you’d told me I would take nearly 2 months to read the novel, I would have guessed that I probably disliked it. That’s the usual pattern for me.
At its core, the plot is really simple: Mr Biswas just wants his own house. It’s a life-long goal—one that becomes seemingly impossible for him to achieve.
The problem is—well, actually, there’s a multitude of problems— he’s married into a large Indian family (relocated to Trinidad) that, traditionally, all lives together. Mr. Biswas and his wife, Shama, make terrible spending decisions—like buying a car when they’re already broke and supposedly trying to save for our house.
And Mr. Biswas has a persistent victim mentality. He blames his wife, he blames his kids, and he especially blames his wife’s family for his situation.
Biswas is bitter, snarky, occasionally violent, and sometimes just genuinely funny. Sounds a little like V.S. Naipaul, yes?
The beauty of the novel is its portrayal of this unique culture and all these strange rules of etiquette. Male and female roles are strictly defined. Women are routinely physically abused. Men are insanely competitive—attempting to outdo each other with nice clothes, furniture, and house size. Well, that’s kind of American I guess.
But back to Naipaul. If you know enough about him, you might find it difficult to read this book. Publicly, at least, he’s a jerk.
But there’s no denying that Naipaul is an amazing writer and A House for Mr. Biswas is an outstanding novel. If you know Tiger Woods is jerk and you still watch him play golf, if you know Bill Clinton cheated on his wife and still voted for him, if you know Tom Cruise is an unabashedly pompous d-bag and you still watch his movies, then I think you’ll be just fine reading a novel written by V.S. Naipaul.
The man has a gift.
Towards the middle of the morning the sky lightened and lifted, the rain thinned to a drizzle, then stopped altogether. The clouds rolled back, the sky was suddenly blinding blue and there were shadows on the water […]. Roads and roofs dried, steaming areas of dryness spreading out swiftly, like ink on a blotter. And presumably roads and yards were dry, except for the depressions where water had collected. Heat nibbled at their edges, until even the depressions failed to reflect the blue sky. And the world was dry again, except for the mud in the shelter of trees.
That’s the type of writing you get when you read A House for Mr. Biswas. It’s not a “page-turner,” and if you’re like me you might take a while to read all 565 pages, but it’s one of the most well-written novels on this list. I recommend it.
The Opening Line: “Ten weeks before he died, Mr. Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked.”
The Meaning: Mr. Biswas just wants a frickin’ house. That’s it. Can’t the man have his own house without having to live with 30 other people in his wife’s family’s house?
Highlights: V.S. Naipaul has been widely called one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. After reading A House for Mr Biswas, I can see why. It’s fully-character driven, but the amount of time and the depths to which Naipaul goes to explore these characters, mainly Mr. Biswas, is astounding.
Lowlights: This is a dense book, so it might take you awhile to read. Towards the end of the book, you might feel worn out. It’s truly a slow-paced, light on plot, character driven novel. That may or may not appeal to you.
Memorable Line: “Occasionally, a nerve of memory is touched—a puddle reflecting the blue sky after rain, a pack of thumbed cards, the fumbling with a shoe-lace, the smell of a new car, the sound of a stiff wind through trees, the smells and colours of a toyshop, the taste of milk and prunes—and a fragrant of forgotten experience would be dislodged, isolated, puzzling […]. So later, and very slowly, in securer times of different stresses, when the memories had lost the power to hurt, with pain or joy, they would fall into place and give back the past.”
Final Thoughts: Do yourself a favor and give this novel a chance–especially if you don’t mind a character-driven, slower-paced story. If anything, you can enjoy A House for Mr. Biswas because of the beautiful prose.