A haunting paean to a maddening mother

Prayaag Akbar reviews Jerry Pinto‘s debut novel Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph Book Company) in The Sunday Guardian:

There are various kinds of unreliable narrators, sometimes mad, sometimes motivated, sometimes forgetful. The British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has built a stellar body of work exploring how the mind reshapes the past in a manner concordant with its owner’s self-image and desires. In a 1987 essay on this topic, Salman Rushdie makes the distinction between “literal” and “remembered” truth. As he writes, “one of the simplest truths about any set of memories is that many of them will be false.”

It is arguable whether Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto’s impressive first novel, has this unreliable narrator. But Pinto sets up the story in such a way that we must search for the “literal” truth through three overlapping narrative filters – layers of complexity, if you will. This is the story of a two-parent-two-kid Goan Catholic family told in the words of the son. The son, however, seeks to relate the story of his parents, so he must rely on his parents’ memories, and the information they are willing to share with him. Already we are two steps away from how events might actually have unfolded in this fictional world. Atop these lies the filter that is potentially decisive, and Pinto makes note of it time and again as he writes – the woman who delineates most of the action in the book is seriously mentally ill.

It is interesting, if this kind of thing interests you, to think about why Pinto chose to write his first novel this way. Perhaps it is because he is writing about debilitating mental illness, the inner processes of which remain largely unknown despite much scientific advance. Yet juxtaposed against this narrative ambiguity is that this is the story of the author’s family, especially his mother’s struggle with a serious neurological condition. There are some fictional departures, but we know that the Em of the title is his mother, the Big Hoom is his father, Pinto is the narrator, Roger Mendes, and his sister is Susan. The reader knows Pinto has lived this ordeal, and she must rely on the authority this lends if at times she questions something about the events depicted. More:

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