A Cool, Dark Place
Random House India
Rs. 450, PP242
Perhaps the worst thing about bad sentences is that it’s eventually the reader who breathes them to life, imbuing every word with connotation, unlocking syntax and meaning, only to recoil in dismay at what she has collaborated in creating. Consider, for example, careening through this endless chain of adverbs: “She spoke in breathless sighs, fervently, excitedly, hopefully, uncertainly, with eagerness and without patience, foolishly” — and imagine then, woefully, gloomily, pitifully, with grim determination and little hope, proceeding to the end of the page, there, possibly, to find a simile such as this, “The poor chap rushed off quicker than a Jewish man’s foreskin”, and even dismay now appears inadequate.
One could argue, of course, that whether the image of a foreskin dashing about like the White Rabbit meets your literary expectations or not, all writers are allowed a few miscalculated turns of phrase. Four centuries of exculpating commentary haven’t quite rid Shakespeare of that hawk and handsaw embarrassment. Besides, an enthusiasm for language is what makes writers write in the first place.
How Supriya Dravid’s debut novel, A Cool, Dark Place is written, then, would be acceptable — to some, perhaps invigorating — if only its adverbs weren’t matched by an equal enthusiasm for proclaiming deep truths. Thus, the ponderously circular: “The truth is that we despise what we know because once we know it, it becomes part of who we are, and then we despise ourselves”; the blindingly obvious: “The truth is that he never really dealt with his alcoholism because he was too inebriated to think there was a problem”; or the so biologically accurate it must mean something: “The truth is that the heart is the size of a fist”.
Such bubbles of vacuity litter the book, and to discern a plot amidst the verbiage requires an active suspension of disbelief. As you must let yourself believe that the man in a bear suit is a bear, so here you must convince yourself that all those words aren’t just filling space between cover and blurb, but are indeed meant to convey story, emotion, thought.
In its bare bones, the plot holds promise. An undergraduate Zephyr returns home after her father’s suicide and uncovers harrowing family secrets via her drunken grandfather Don (“he knew how quixotic he was” — get it?), her shattered mother, and her own suppressed memory. This unhappy-in-its-own-way family engages the reader with some unpredictable twists, but Dravid’s attempt at creating an atmosphere of madcap, tragicomic surrealism is undercut by characters who declaim their lines with all the self-conscious twitchiness of actors in a school play. Yet, since God forbid any character should feel only one emotion at a time, who can blame them? After all, how do you speak when “excited, angry, nervous and confused at the same time”? A bit like this:
“Are you seriously taking advice from a debauched, has-been, drugaddled, rock star?” I asked, amused and angry – but more angry than amused – at the same time. “Are you fucking demented, Mummy? I just want to take your hair and tie you with it to the ceiling fan,” I screamed.
The truth is, it doesn’t work.
Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and other Stories of Love