Fiction is full of characters who act like fish out of water, floundering on foreign shores. Equally popular is the cuckoo in the nest, that interloper who ruffles feathers in new milieus. The Indian protagonist of Madhuri Vijay’s supremely accomplished debut novel, “The Far Field,” turns out to be both of these things as she swaps her comfortable surroundings for hostile territory, then settles down and makes herself at home. But the more she explores and loses her way, the more she learns about her country, her family and even herself.
Shalini’s “story or confession or whatever it turns out to be” begins after the death of her mother. It is the first hard knock this privileged young woman from Bangalore has suffered. Her woes accumulate and send her over the edge when both her employer and her friend Hari decide to part company with her. “You are stopping your life,” her father tells her on one of the few occasions when he is in town. Determined to kick-start it again, she embarks on a long journey to Kashmir to track down a blast from her past — Bashir Ahmed, the handsome, green-eyed traveling trader who delighted her as a little girl with his tall tales and who captivated her mother with his presence.
Kashmir proves to be an eye-opening experience. Shalini arrives in a rural backwater that couldn’t be more different from the thriving, pulsing megacity she left behind. Relying on the kindness of strangers, she learns of tensions between Hindus and Muslim militants, and festering wounds and unhealed scars within fractured communities.
From there, Shalini proceeds to a more isolated village in the Himalayas and stays with Bashir Ahmed’s family. He is not there, and the reason for his absence cuts her deeply. Nevertheless, she adapts to a new way of life in a place she calls heaven and cancels all plans to return home. “Heaven is not at all what you think,” says a man she harbors illicit desires for. Trouble brews in paradise and eventually boils over as secrets are aired and old rivalries flare up, leaving a guest feeling like an intruder and a family struggling to stay intact.
Vijay’s first novel is an expansive and wonderfully immersive work. Shalini’s narrative is composed of two interwoven strands: one following her early years, the other chronicling her time in Kashmir. The sections devoted to her past could well have resembled needless padding; in fact, they help flesh out Shalini and provide enough space for the novel’s strongest character to shine — Shalini’s formidable, “incandescent” mother. In the book’s main sections, Vijay gives us a brilliant outsider’s view of an exotic, off-the-beaten-track realm and a compelling portrayal of a character gradually unraveling due to forces beyond her control.
This is a stunning novel that skillfully grapples with the complexities of human relationships. Madhuri Vijay’s career looks very bright indeed.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Far Field
By: Madhuri Vijay.
Publisher: Grove Press, 432 pages, $27.