Thursday, January 18, 2018

We That Are Young: Preti Taneja: book review

We That Are Young: Preti Taneja
-Review by Divya Dubey

[Published in India Today magazine: Dec 10, 2017:]

Preti Taneja’s ambitious novel, We That Are Young, touted as a modern-day retelling of King Lear set in contemporary India, is a classic example of a fine writer failing to deliver on a promise. For the book, despite its lovely language and original expressions, comes nowhere close to its original. The original tragedy makes an impact because of its intensity
and the passion of the characters. In this novel, both are lacking. The primary characters aren’t even introduced until much later.

The novel opens with Jivan, half brother of Jeet and the son of Ranjit, returning home from the US after a decade. His long and winding reflections are about his dead mother, his altered relationship with his father and half-brother, and his life thereafter. None of it really counts when we arrive at the novel’s main plot – as we later realize.

In fact almost the first hundred pages of the book describe Jivan’s first day back home, punctuated with several memories, musings and flashbacks. The reader gets the impression that the novel is about Jivan or Ranjit or both – but it is not. The men are only peripheral to the story and the central characters – Devraj, the father of Sita, Gargi and Radha – the owner of Devraj Company or simply the Company, along with his three daughters.

Preti Taneja
However, they bear minimal resemblance to Lear or his offspring – Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Just when the story begins to develop and the reader is somewhat nudged out of indifference at the interaction between Jivan and Gargi, the POV and narration are handed over arbitrarily to Devraj. POV/narration shifts between the characters and the third-person arbitrarily. Unfortunately, in either case, it never quite manages to draw the reader in. At best actions and dialogues remain superficial, never quite creating the desired effect. For the most part the novel remains dry and dreary, offering nothing to the reader to root for. Even the present-tense device, usually employed to create a sense of immediacy, falls flat. It seems as if in the attempt to be intellectually impressive, it completely ignores the reader or the need to connect with them at a deeper level.

The plot is roughly modelled on King Lear, built around the Company, which has under its umbrella – coffee chains, hotels, fabrics, etcetera – which Devraj wants to divide equally between his daughters. However, unnecessarily long and banal dialogues with occasional sprinklings of Hindi straight out of Hindi soap operas are more frustrating than engaging. Devraj as Lear is a damp squib. The book could easily have been two hundred pages shorter and a great deal tighter.

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