It is a relatively hefty book. (The copy I obtained from the library clocked in at about 500 pages.) That disclaimer aside, I poured through this one like water – it was gripping and I never lost momentum.
I did this one backward: I saw the movie first. Earth, the gorgeous interpretation by Deep Mehta, left a deep impression after I saw it in college. Thus, Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel has been on my list for many years, although the tragic subject matter caused me to procrastinate.
Unsurprisingly, I’m glad I finally picked it up. Sidhwa has a distinct writing style: frank and youthful. The setting is Lahore before the portion of India, and the narrator is an inquisitive and happy-go-lucky Parsee girl named Lenny. Because of her age, the reader often finds themselves trying to push back the curtain of Lenny’s naïveté to see what’s really going on with the adult characters that surround her. Ultimately, it is not Lenny who provides the dramatic tension in the story, but her ayah, a beautiful Hindu woman who has enchanted the men of the neighborhood.
Gripping and memorable. Very happy that I picked up this slim, vividly colored novel.
The beginning of the end is when the protagonist’s husband walks in to find her hunched over the floor, surrounded by trash bags and Tupperware containers full of frozen meat. It’s a vivid image, and like many other scenes in the novel, I found myself having an almost visceral reaction to the struggles of the main character as she attempted to navigate her new revulsion in the face of meat.
This concise novel is broken up into three parts: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister all narrate different sections. Crucially, we don’t receive narration from the titular character although we are given glimpses of her thoughts through brief italicized sections. She feels removed to us, which is pertinent when we consider how in real life we are often removed from those people who are acting in ways contrary to the norm. Raising our eyebrows and making meaningful eye contact with fellow bus passengers, we do our best to ignore those people whose behaviors make us shift with discomfort, or force us to confront the gaps in our society.
What does it mean to be alive? What separates human from animals? How can we retain autonomy over ourselves and our bodies when society asserts control over our physical and mental selves? This would be a great book club pick: there’s plenty of questions and themes for a meaty conversation. (Yes, pun intended.)
I’ve passed this book before. It’s one of those intellectual best-sellers that sits on tables in the front of bookstores. I’ve picked it up, perused the pages, moved on. Somehow it really never held my attention. But after the enthusiastic recommendations of both a coworker and cousin, I finally picked it up. I’m so glad.
Anne Fadiman has a thoughtful tone that illustrates intense experiences without resorting to hyperbole and reviews historical events without devolving into a textbook. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down focuses on the journey of the Lees, a Hmong family that is resettled in Merced as refugees. When one of their children is diagnosed with epilepsy, the miscommunication between them and their Western doctors leads to tragedy and heartache.
In between chapters about the Hmong’s struggle, Fadiman reviews the turbulent and often tragic history of the Hmong people. Fadiman does not spell out any overt conclusions; her tone remains nonjudgmental and descriptive instead of preaching.
Nonetheless, the historical context paints a picture of an independent people. Additionally, Fadiman demonstrates how the qualities that allowed the Hmong to thrive in hostile environments backfire when thrown into the context of the American medical system. On the other side, while the doctors operate with the best of intentions, their inability to communicate with the Lees cause much of their hard-work to be in vain.
The indisputable takeaway is that without mutual understanding, our best intentions may go to waste.
Anne Fadiman’s descriptive and well-wrought book was one of the highlights of my non-fiction reading. Definitely recommended. Thought-provoking and engaging.