A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth – Review

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Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a long book, a really long book, and there’s no getting away from it. Standing at over one and a half thousand pages, it’s one of the longest books ever to be published in a single volume in English, and it looks suitably imposing. Through the character of Amit, an author himself, Seth directly addresses this concern: ‘I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room…’. Seth’s novel belongs firmly to the latter category, creating hermits of all its readers until the final page is turned, in what is a sprawling family saga that becomes impossible to put down (except when your arms get tired). A novel this big is difficult to ignore, but its length is not the only noteworthy thing about it, because A Suitable Boy is phenomenal: thoughtful, expansive, politically and culturally engaged, and just a great story.

To say that I was still unwilling to part with this novel after over 1,500 pages testifies to its impact. Although it appears daunting, the length of Seth’s novel means his narrative goes far beyond the usual dashes of local colour and dabbling with current affairs, offering full immersion in the culture of India immediately following partition. In a novel of this length and depth the family trees included at the start don’t go amiss. Yet everyone’s lives are so intricately interwoven, so closely involved at every turn, that the reader quickly becomes themselves involved in the Mehra and Kapoor families. By the novel’s end one can speak of these characters as if of relatives, so closely do we follow their exploits over the year-long timespan.

Everyone’s lives are so intricately interwoven, so closely involved at every turn, that the reader quickly becomes themselves involved in the Mehra and Kapoor families

The intensely familial focus of the novel, in particular the dominance of Mrs – ‘ma’ – Mehra, helps to subsume the reader into every aspect of the characters’ lives, however mundane. The fact that Mrs Mehra is nicknamed ‘ma’ by almost every other character, even those outside her immediate family, is telling: familiarity pervades in these Indian households, and to even think of the novel’s four main families as distinct becomes as difficult as it is inappropriate.

Seth tells of lives incontrovertibly linked, of reputations and livelihoods that rest upon tenuous relations between distant people, and all with the greatest panache. The injections of poetry throughout are particularly delightful, from the poetic interludes of Seth himself, to the playful rhyming couplets that the Chatterji family constantly communicate in; A Suitable Boy is a novel steeped in the literary, but not any the heavier for it.

As the title indicates, it is the search ‘for a suitable boy’ which forms the main narrative thrust of the novel, but Seth deals with so much more. The backdrop to Lata’s search for a husband is politically charged and compelling, with the most dramatic moments of conflict demonstrating an almost cinematic urgency in their vividness. Yet what Seth overwhelmingly chooses to depict is how ordinary life endures, and how the familiar must prevail even in the midst of such conflicts, which endanger the families and threaten their relationships with one another. Thus, the search for an eligible suitor becomes not the sole focus, but a microcosm for Seth’s whole narrative approach, which puts issues of family and reputation at the heart.

In such a long novel it has to be the journey, rather than simply the destination, that excites.

In such a long novel it has to be the journey, rather than simply the destination, that excites. Bookending the novel with two weddings in the same family underlines how Seth’s India is a place of transition. His highly-developed characters change with their landscape, each forcing the other to adapt as political and domestic conflicts variously come to a head. Perhaps surprisingly after investing ourselves for over one and a half thousand pages, by the novel’s close it seems hardly to matter who Lata chooses to marry. What takes on the greater importance is how the involved families finally reach this moment, and how Seth’s characters have developed to overcome the strife that continually surrounds them in the process.

Twenty-five years on and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy has aged as one hopes his eligible suitors might, and last year it was picked up by the BBC for a new drama that remains in the pipeline. Yet, having invested the time – oh so much time – in this book, it is unthinkable that justice could be done to it in just eight episodes on the screen. But, if nothing else, the television series will be an excuse for those of us who have read it to brag.