Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Review: 'The Painted Ocean' by Gabriel Packard

The Painted Ocean was a novel that intrigued me from the moment I read the blurb. It seemed to have a very strong voice and the different elements of the story seemed interesting. However, I was unsure of how it would all fit together so I was looking forward to reading it. Thanks to Corsair and to Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/03/2016
Publisher: Corsair; Little, Brown Book Group
When I was a little girl, my dad left me and my mum, and he never came back. And you're supposed to be gutted when that happens. But secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself, without having to share her with anyone. And I sort of inherited all the affection she used to give to my dad - like he'd left it behind for me as a gift, to say sorry for deserting me.
So says eleven year old Shruti of her broken home in suburban middle England. But hopes of her mother's affection are in vain: speaking little English, and fluent in only Hindi and Punjabi, Shruti's mother is lost, and soon falls prey to family pressure to remarry. To find another husband means returning to India and leaving Shruti behind.
Meanwhile at school a new arrival, the indomitable Meena, dispenses with Shruti's bullying problems and transforms her day to day life. Desperate for companionship Shruti latches on to Meena to the point of obsession, following her through high school and on to university. But when Meena invites Shruti to join her on holiday in India, she has no idea how dangerous her obsession will turn out to be...
Gabriel Packard's THE PAINTED OCEAN has been described by Colum McCann 'as fearless tour de force. It is a rare achievement - an emotionally rich work of literature, delivered in the form of a gripping, page-turning story. The depiction of a British Indian childhood and adolescence is utterly compelling, as is the allegorical exploration of the human condition.'
The voice of The Painted Ocean is Shruti, a young Indian girl who lives in England with her mother who speaks no English. From the beginning of the novel we hear her and only her and she is brutally honest about everything. Initially one might suspect Packard is setting her up as an unreliable narrator, in the way that Martell has us questioning the narrator's grasp on reality in Life of Pi (this novel will come back in this review), but Shruti is honest with herself and with her readers. This starts from the very first page with Shruti revealing her relative happiness of her father's absence. As we follow Shruti as she grows up and becomes more and more alone the reader can't help but get attached to her, even if they're bound to get annoyed with her every once in a while. She is what guides the reader through the insanity of the plot and as her voice matures and changes so does the reader's perception of her.

The plot of this novel is truly a miracle in the sense that if I tried to describe it to someone who hadn't read the book there is no way I could show how all the different storylines are linked and how it all makes sense. Starting off as seemingly a coming-of-age novel The Painted Ocean focuses on Shruti's worries about her mother and their life. The racial elements in the book which focus on Shruti's origin and her peers' response add a new level to the book, whereas her friendship with Meena turns our ideas about racial identity around and makes us reconsider the role of friendship in a teenage girl's life. Throughout the novel there are moments where time passes quickly, months, sometimes even years flying past in a few lines. And it works for The Painted Ocean although it's a risky technique. Packard's writing is a big reason as to why all the potentially bad moves work. He captures characters well, he describes settings and action well and brings it all together into a narrative that is somehow coherent. In that sense the novel reminds me of Life of Pi, where the story feels so absurd and yet makes perfect sense in and of itself.

Now, I've mentioned Shruti's voice a few times already and I think it needs some explaining. Packard writes The Painted Ocean in what feels like a first person stream-of-consciousness. When we first meet Shruti and she's a child turning teenager the novel is littered with 'like' and 'cos' and 'whatever' and I can see how that could work on a reader's nerve, especially considering the author is a University-educated white male writing a young, Indian teenage girl. I had my hesitations about it initially but everyone who has talked to young teenagers trying to be cool and fit in recognizes this kind of speaking. Fascinating was the way in which Packard aged Shruti and the way her situation and the people around her affected how she spoke. And surprisingly, towards the end, The Painted Ocean makes a number of fascinating comments about the nature of storytelling. Throughout the whole narrative we have followed Shruti on what feels like "in the moment" narration where the end brings some doubts into it. She doesn't become unreliable but we as readers do. It is a beautiful switch, which I won't discuss too much to leave some twists and turns, and I love books that make the reader consider their own position and how they "create" a book in their own mind due to what they think is right or isn't.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Reading The Painted Ocean was a great experience although I can see how it might not be for everyone. It is the kind of book that requires some dedication but that is very rewarding in the end. I'd recommend it to fans of novels like Life of Pi which stretches the imagination a little bit.

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