background information and criteria.*
Author Deborah Willis (of Vanishing and Other Stories) recently said in an interview with The Afterword, "And maybe that's why many novels try my patience. Often they seem padded and baggy, as though the writer was more worried about the word-count than anything else. I read these and think, "Why is all of this necessary? This could have been said in 20 pages."
I didn't finish The Toss of a Lemon. After Reading by Lightning I had no desire to put myself on the rack again. But, I did give'er a fair 100 pages. The reason I decided not to continue that the book felt "baggy." It's far too wordy and not tightly plotted in the least.
I know this is supposed to mean the book is 'epic' or some shiz but that doesn't mean pacing and plot development have to go down the drain. I started reading reviews on Amazon that gave lukewarm kudos but warned that nothing really happened. It's a book, for the love of Pete, not one of those 15 minute long tracks that bands sometimes sneak into their albums, the kind with endless feedback and guitar noodling.
The Toss of a Lemon takes place in India around the turn of the 20th century. It concerns Sivakami, a member of the Brahmin class (educators/scholars), who is married off at 10 and widowed at 18. She is forced to take on the leper-like existence of a widow - she cannot be touched between sunrise and sundown, she must wear widows weeds (white saris), she must stay out of sight as a glimpse at her is considered bad luck. Apparently her son rebels against his caste identity causing much hoopla and this is all set against 60 years of massive chance in India's history.
So, I wasn't taken with the book (again). Let's use my criteria to see if it classifies as part of the Canon:
1. Cover: Fail. In hardcover we get the full beige treatment (to indicate a serious book). In paperback we're treated to an image of an actual lemon (food images appeal to the more casual female book buyer, who will wait to buy in paperback). I get the strategy but the wham-bam effect isn't there. You can't be subtle when you're a book waiting to be bought on a shelf.
2. Colonialism/Canadian Frontier: Fail. This gets a fail because it concerns colonial India and we all know India was part of the British empire until independence in 1947. Much in the same way that MG Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall concerned Kenyan independence from The Empire and felt like a Canadian book, so does The Toss of a Lemon.
3. Theme of Futility/Failure: Fail. I didn't read enough of this book to pass judgement but oh well, I can kinda tell where it's going. People trapped by societal shiftings, caught between local custom and global change, powerless against both? Sounds futile to me. I know there's supposed to be redemption in here somewhere but the balancing of love's power and society's strictures is totally old school Can Lit.
4. National/regional identity: Fail. No Canadian identity here but it is totally focused upon Brahmin and Indian identity and this is a very Canadian preoccupation. No stone is left unturned - the stately pacing is supposed to echo the age of the Indian culture, the culture is meticulously detailed, the serious tone reflects the gravity of a time of massive upheaval in a global powerhouse's history. There is utter focus on who the Indian people were and how they were affected by the end of British rule.
5. Use of Humour/Irony: Pass. This book was totally humourless. While I understand that an epic book about India that spans 60 years and many sorrowful events is in need of some gravity, I couldn't handle the weight of it. In any case, there's no special brand of Canadian Irony here so the book gets a pass (actually a secret fail for depressing me).
6. Idolization/Demonization of Nature: Pass. The focus is on societies and human relations, not nature's all-powerful, all-seeing eye (kind of like the one in LOTR but with more fire).
7. Gothicism: Pass. A gothic tale of India's epic history? I wish! This book could have used some crazy people and weird supernatural shit.
VERDICT: This is old-school Can-Lit - cultural, serious, obsessed with historical detail. Judging from the glowing reviews (click link below) this book has an audience and has its merits. However, I am looking for fresh, engaging, daring. Blisteringly innovative. The Toss of a Lemon is not that.
[Ed Note: Dude, if the next shortlist title isn't any good I am going to have a massive hissy fit.]
The Toss of a Lemon/ Padma Viswanathan / Vintage Canada / Trade PB, 2009