Friday, November 27, 2015

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

Rating: WORTHY!

The author's name, we're told in the fly leaf, is pronounced SWA-thee Of-US-thee. The author was born in in India, but now lives in the USA. I find myself wondering, given that none of the native Indian languages uses the English alphabet, why her name isn't spelled phonetically. Why spell it in a way that necessitates either a phonetic spelling or a wrong pronunciation?! I've never understood that kind of thing when words are translated from languages which do not use anything remotely like the western alphabets. Life, it seems to me, would be a lot simpler for all of us if more thought was put into making it easier on ourselves!

In this context, one of the main characters is named Savitri, and again, it's not spelled how its pronounced. Interestingly, for a novel about three main characters, her name is pronounced like it's 'savvy three', but that's ruined when Holly, one of the other characters, shortens it to 'Sav'. Maybe this is on purpose, because it sounds like the way Americans pronounce 'salve'. Is Savitri going to be Holly's salve when things go bad? You'll have to read this to find out. The ending wasn't at all what I had been expecting, but it was a really good ending. Although this kind of thing is exactly the kind of word play in which I like to indulge myself in some of the things I've written, somehow I don't get the impression that this is what was going on here.

This novel is about friendship and about the psychology of loss, and about free-running or parkour. The free-running could also be taken as a metaphor for the ups and downs of friendship, and it was this panoply of opportunity and ideas which attracted me to this novel. It also has an Indian character written by an Indian author, which is another attraction for me. I find it hard to believe that authors do not include more Asian characters in their work given how huge the Asian population is - half the world! Given that African Americans are a significant component of the USA population and still struggle to get a fair shake, I guess I'm living in dreamland expecting that a community that is seen as being distanced from the US by half a world would get their turn, even though large numbers of them also populate in the USA.

There was one more thing to like about this novel. Although it's largely text, it's also somewhat of a mixed media publication in that it has a significant graphical component - rather like a comic book or graphic novel - which intrudes on the text from time to time. That said, the novel was written in first person PoV which I don't like, and to make it worse, this novel had three main characters, two of which were telling it in their own voice. That doubles the issues you have with only one PoV.

First person PoV is unnatural to me. We're being told that the author is typing-out the story as it happens, which is patently absurd, so we have to understand either that they telling us - narrating it as it happens to them - or they are writing it in retrospect, in which case, they evidently remember every little detail with eidetic clarity down to pinpoint accurate conversations, all with none of the natural modification which memory inevitably molds events. I can't take any of that seriously. Typically if I pick up a book off the shelf in a book store or the library and I see it's first person, I put it right back. Some writers, however, can carry this voice, so every time I find myself stuck with a novel like this, I'm hoping against no hope that this writer can do it without nauseating me or making me resent their self-important main character, and from the way this one started, it seems my wish was granted. In the end, it worked, and for once, worked well provided you were willing to let the absurdity of first person slide by.

Holly Paxton is the daughter of a cop, but this doesn't stop her free-running with her twin Corey and their friend Savitri Mathur across the cityscape of Chicago. These three late teens are (we're told on page six) "Defying the Physical Laws of Gravity." I have no idea what that means! There's only one law of gravity and nothing defies it, not even the birds. The best you can do is learn to work it, which is what these guys are doing, and as the story begins, Holly almost fails to work it. She comes close to missing a jump, and Savitri knows this, but neither Corey nor Holly are willing to consider that she could have died in a forty-foot fall. This near disaster presages the real disaster which is about to befall them.

Savitri and Corey are an item, but Savitri is heading off to Princeton when her high schooling is done, and Corey doesn't know this to begin with, so the story began well with a nice variety of friction from different sources showing up right from the off. Talking of controversy, the twins have a silver Mini Cooper which Corey has named "The Dana" and the author talks of this as though it's exclusively a female name, but it isn't. It's bi-gender. Just saying! In fact, pretty much every name is bi-gender if you're willing to let a few hang-ups go! There's a boy named Sue and there's a man duhh!!

What happens next is that Corey is shot and dies. Holly almost dies, and she and Savitri are left to try and make sense of their world sans Corey. The story that follows from this is beautifully told and unfolds about as close to perfection as you can hope for. The title was perfect! This is really well written, and tells a good and engrossing story. It constantly fooled me because I would think it was going somewhere when in fact it went somewhere else that was at least as interesting. I would have liked it to have gone further than it did in some directions, but I was satisfied with how it moved. Be warned: this is not your usual super hero story!

It wasn't all plain sailing, though. For example, I didn't get why both Savitri and Holly were letting jerk Josh back into their lives. It seemed to me to be unforgivable what he had done, but then it wasn't my call, it was Holly's and Savitri's choice. There was also one instance where Savitri came home from free-running and without washing her hands, immediately launched into helping her mom make roti (chapati). This didn't do Asian cuisine any favors and played right into the hands of any bigots and racists who like to trash foreign kitchen hygiene. Maybe most young readers won't notice this, as probably they won't notice (but they sure as hell should) that a revolver does not have a safety like an automatic does!

The biggest issue though, if I had one, was that what was happening (with regard to the graphical portion of the story) was happening to Holly, yet it was steeped in Indian mythology. I know this author is Indian at her roots, and if it had happened to Savitri, it would have flowed organically, but it didn't make much sense that a westerner who had been raised in different cultural traditions would have experienced what Holly experienced. Yes, she had read comic books about that mythology, but she also read comic books about different mythologies, and she had been raised in an entirely different cultural milieu, so this focus on Indian ritual didn't flow logically. That said, it was still interesting to me, and it was definitely different, so I was willing to let that go and enjoy it for what it was overall: a fun adventure, engrossing and entertaining, and I rate it a worthy read.

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