Circle of Fate is 54-year-old Prita Warrier's first novel, but it reads like she's an old hand in the game. The book is a quietly beautiful study in the complicated, almost brutal relationships between women - old and young, high-born and not. In that sense, for just the depiction of women, this book gets full marks.
A moving story about the interactions of three South Indian women - Devaki the house matriarch, Sheela the newly returned prodigal granddaughter, and Ambli who is Devaki's help.
With each of them representing a different face of Indian women - where one is bold, another prudish; where one is shy, another outspoken - Circle of Fate sketches a wonderful and complete portrait of the modern and not-so-modern females that is otherwise missed in most Indian literature.
Prita has written her characters to be real, gritty, confused, and even appalling at times. There is no room in her story-telling for idolising. This is not the book for someone who wants to see women on pedestals, nor is it for someone who wants to see them shamed. This is a story about women as they often are - flawed, scared, and running around headless; trying to make amends, often powerless, sometimes empowered.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Ambli, for she is by far the most surprising. It would have been easy for Warrier to make the old maid one-sided, silly, and conservative. But this is not the case. Ambli is, despite being the least educated and economically viable, the boldest character in the book. She has been written with a love and care for details that earn the author a special nod of respect even if not much else in the novel does.
It is for this reason that I think it's unfortunate that more time was not devoted to Ambli in the novel - though it is not the focal point of the story, I think the book would have benefitted from seeing through her eyes the strange relationship between Sheela the granddaughter and Devaki the grandmother.
Warrier's writing is subtle; her words a bit like waves lazily crashing unto the beach during low tide. The tone of the book is almost soothing, quiet, and her characters' every move is clearly been painstakingly thought of and through.
That is not to say her characters come across as pre-planned; they are rather real - right from the get-go when Sheela unthinkingly takes a run-down taxi from the railway station only to, in the most human of ways, regret it five minutes later.
It is a bit unclear what point-of-view this story is being told from - it skips between Sheela and Devaki without much warning. The chapter breaks are almost all that keep a reader from losing their place every few minutes.
Warrier is clearly a good listener and a great observer of people - she has, unfortunately, not translated this ability into scenes, which the novel is painfully lacking in.
My biggest problem with the novel is the lack of scenes. By and large, the reader is told - not shown - what is going on, what the characters are thinking. In this sense, Warrier misses endless opportunities to write scenes that would have been both engaging and informative.
One wants to see Sheela being afraid in the taxi, not hear her talk about being afraid. Similarly, one would learn a 100 times more about Ambli and Devaki's relationship by seeing them weigh out food stuffs for the day, rather than read about it.
Also, personally perhaps, I don't think there is any room in modern writing for telling anymore - we as an audience are used to having all six senses engaged. It is unfortunate that this is the age of 6D. It's no longer enough for Warrier to tell me Devaki was angry when she got no pictures of Sheela's after her birth - I need to know how her breath quickened, how many times she checked her post-box, how salty her tears were when no photos or news came.
And this is exactly where the book lacks depth - there are literally almost only a handful of proper scenes in this book. So, by the time one is done, it is like having a beautiful voice talk at you. It's nice to hear, but would be better as a conversation.