Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jacob Hills by Ismita Tandon Dhankher

I'm glad this wasn't a review copy, because now I can just rant, without having to bother about a review structure or ratings. Those who do care about the review structure and ratings would be happy to know that I though it was a pretty good book! It's fast paced, but you should know, there's little action (not the fighting and killing kind, anyway) and there are not many clues or detectives, either. 

Here's the blurb, which gives a pretty good idea about the book, without giving away any details (as must have been intended and saves me the trouble of writing a summary)

"It’s just another evening at the Tiller’s Club. 
Near the bar, Capt. Rana, the Young Officer undergoing training at the War College stands among his course mates, consciously avoiding his pregnant, Muslim wife, Heena. Rumour has it she had forced him to marry her because of the baby. 
Saryu, village belle turned modern babe, drink in hand, chats up a YO. Her husband, Maj. Vikram Singh, shoots angry glances at her. She isn’t bothered; the question is, who will she go home with tonight? 
Pam and Gary, the flamboyant Sikh couple, chat merrily with the senior officers, charming as ever. Who’d ever guess that they lead the infamous Key Club, an underground swinger couples’ club. 
And in one corner stands the Anglo-Indian wife of Maj. George Chandy, Eva, who finds herself at the heart of a murder mystery when a woman’s bleeding body is discovered at the old church under the black cross. The murdered woman’s body is covered with cigarette burns. A six-year-old girl’s wrist is similarly marked. Another little girl shows signs of severe abuse.
Jacob Hills: an army station that houses the War College where young officers receive training. A world of army officers and genteel conversation, of smart men and graceful women. Set in the 1980s – in an India that was at the cusp of tradition and Westernized modernity – this is the story of the ugliness that lies beneath the garb of Jacob Hills’s beauty and sophistication. An ugliness the Chandys find themselves confronted with. Will they uncover the truth behind the woman’s murder? Will their love survive Jacob Hills?"

I really wanted to read Jacob Hills, because Ismita's debut book (Love on the Rocks) was special to me. It was the first review copy I ever received. The blog and I have come a long way since and after devouring her book in just a day, I can say with confidence, so has the author. When it comes to the writing style and the narration (alternating first person views of many characters), the books are quite similar. Not to mention, the characteristic cute little title sketches for every chapter and the bits of fine poetry have comfortably snaked their way into the story, like in the first book. Both the books are murder mysteries, and at the same time, a series of character sketches that tell a lot more than the story. And despite all the glaring, uncanny similarities, Jacob Hills ends up being a much better book than Love on the Rocks. That's a good thing, because that was a debut and this shouldn't and doesn't seem like one. Jacob Hills is more refined, more structured and you get a feeling that it's not written to please someone. Love on the Rocks had a bit of that clumsy, trying-to-impress vibe to it that shouted "Debut!" and being the debut reviewer that I was, my review definitely screamed that too (it probably had phrases like "character development" and "plot arc" shoved in there.) Jacob Hills was mature and showed experience.

The difference in the plot arcs (for lack of a better term) is that while Love on the Rocks ended up with a rushed, unexpected bang, Jacob Hills has a sort of slow waltzing finish. That makes it a lot less about solving the mystery and lot more about what's bubbling underneath it all. Ray Bradbury said that a good story is a metaphor, or something to that effect, and this one is. You have the chance to take things at face value and then dig deeper with some of the characters (the more sensible ones like George or the oddly naive ones like Eva) and then you can dig even deeper all on your own. When in Jacob Hills, the author makes a point, racy and bold though the book is, the point made is subtle and unbiased (although I am not even sure if that's intentional.) You are not told what to think, you are only told that, maybe, it's time to think for a bit. The mystery, who killed the woman, who abused the child, those are pieces of a puzzle that gradually fall into place. The helpless "that's it?", the shocked "really?" and the hopeful "what now?" that follow are left for us to chew on. 

Here comes the reviewer in me: The prose is spirited and fun and keeps you entertained. All the different perspectives give you an insight into the world that a lone narrator could not have managed. It is a delicate topic, especially with all that's been in the news lately and it has been handled carefully and I guess, correctly. Along with giving a serious message, the book is also humorous, which keeps it from becoming a complete drab. The book could have used some finishing touches, a little smoothing out of the plot at places, but those are things I found only when I really went looking for faults. My only huge problem with the book is, I suppose, that it's short. I would have loved it if the author had dug deeper into the world. The book had the potential to be a big fat novel and I was disappointed with what was just a little glimpse of what could have been. Since Jacob Hills is already over, I wish the author decides to write one of those longer, deeper stories soon. I'd certainly read it.

I didn't initially like the book cover, by the way. Now I kind of do. The contrasting colours represent a sad and desolate background with something ludicrous and dramatic emblazoned on it, trying and failing to hide what's underneath. It's tragic, pretty much like the book, and also very up-front, almost provocative, like a chall.. wow, I'm reading too much into it, aren't I? I should get some sleep, I have been buried in this book all day.
Meanwhile, why don't you go buy it?

4 comments:

harish p i said...

Heard lot of good things about this book. Thanks for the review. I will try it

Priya said...

Harish - Hope you like it!

R. Ramesh said...

yep good one friend...best wishes

Priya said...

R. Ramesh - Thanks for stopping by (...I guess!)

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