I’m quite behind on these write-ups, which will likely impact the freshness of my perspective on this novel. I finished Family Matters back in mid-September. It’s the second book of Mistry’s that I’ve read, several years after his more famous A Fine Balance, which landed on Oprah’s Book Club list in 2001.
Mistry is a traditional storyteller. John Updike’s quote on the book’s cover is apt: “Mistry harks back to the 19th-century novelists.” Indeed, after reading Forster (who is more early 20th century, I suppose) recently, I can see some of the same elements: building a story through multiple characters and perspectives, the restraint in the narrator, the simplicity of the narration.
But, in Mistry’s case, there is more of a sense, even if just faintly, of the epic–tales that are bigger than their individuals. In particular, Mistry is not afraid of death. Death is a part of the cycle; as such, it can be prolonged (the grandfather Nariman’s) or sudden (Aunt Coomy’s, Mr. Kapur’s), but usually it is not dramatic. In this way and more, Mistry is also more of a realist than Forster. With Forster I get the impression that facts are manipulated in order to arrive at a neater truth. We detect a bit too much cleverness, even if it satisfies us. Mistry’s characters behave as people do. They disappoint us; they shrink as much as they grow. By the end of the novel, Yezad (the patriarch of the nuclear family) has turned from irreverent jokester to religious fundamentalist. The whole galling dispute between immovable tradition and defiant reform looks to be enacted anew between Yezad and his older son Murad. Maybe this is Mistry’s own kind of tidy conclusion, though it feels anything but tidy. Anything but redemptive or conclusive.
Yes, from the standpoint of realism, Mistry does satisfy. And he has a talent for diving into a life’s minutiae without boring his readers. And yet, the book is not memorable. It leaves no lasting impression, not even a vague, inarticulate one. After traversing his sprawl, I find myself dangling at the end, no wiser. What is it all for? I don’t necessarily demand wisdom, but something. This end in contrast to A Fine Balance‘s, which detonated me and which I will always remember. But I was younger then and perhaps more easily impressed. Both novels conclude with an epilogue, but where A Fine Balance exits with a roar, Family Matters finishes with a whimper straining to be something more:
…I wonder what lies ahead for our family in this house, my grandfather’s house, in this world that is more confusing than ever. I think of Daddy, who makes me feel that my real father is gone, replaced by this non-stop-praying stranger.
My mother, hurrying as always, brings in more things from the kitchen. My face must have a faraway expression, for she comes closer, her hand reaching out towards my shoulder. She hesitates, leaving the gesture incomplete. I can sense her fingers an inch away.
Then she lets them settle lightly on my arm. “What is it, Jehangoo? Aren’t you happy?”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I’m happy.”