His ivory skin, once admired, is now the hallmark of his shame as a "blackie-white." Pran is cast out of his house and spit upon by the beggars he once mocked. He soon learns that to survive and succeed in an unstable world, he must adapt like a chameleon to fit in wherever he finds himself first a brothel, then a Christian mission, Oxford University and finally an expedition to Africa. At the end of his journey, the reader wonders, will Pran lose his identity entirely or discover it at last?
This novel is many things. It is a good story, by which I mean it is full of elephants, jungles, narrow escapes, sinister villains and ribald humor. Yet it is also a searing look at the meaning of race and color in colonial times. Kunzru's depiction of the sweaty machinations of British empire-builders, of their efforts to classify and separate the "other" races, is both ludicrous and horrifying.
Kunzru got $1.8 million for this novel, his first, at the age of 31. This is the stuff of daydreams for most authors but envy evaporates as you read and realize his skill as a writer. Every page holds turns of phrase so striking they transport the reader instantly, yet so simple they do not call attention to themselves: "On the table a mandala of crisped moth corpses lay around the lamp." Or "A little courtyard opens out behind high Bombay tenement walls like a thumb pot opened out of a lump of clay." Immediately, you are in this faraway world, which draws you in deeply until you feel yourself becoming an Impressionist yourself.
Again, read this book. But get your own copy I'm not lending you mine.
Melissa Scott SinclairMemory and Loss
For her fourth and latest book, "The House on Belle Isle and Other Stories" (Algonquin Books, $22.95), award-winning Virginia author Carrie Brown delivers her first collection of short stories. These seven delightful tales spanning three continents are a treat for lovers of the warm, wise storyteller. Brown's careful craftsmanship sparkles at times with whimsy and wit. The disarming title story comes alive immediately with the introduction of a severed hand kept for posterity in a bell jar. This morbid curiosity signals the jump in point for the beguiling memory of an eccentric mortician's unusual journey.
Memories and loss factor in each of Brown's stories, she addresses loss with a knowing tenderness that invites the reader to connect with her characters. The fanciful "Wings" takes the pedestrian metaphor of widowed woman as flightless bird and deftly turns it into a compelling story of self-discovery.
Brown is most masterful when she writes in the first person. In "The House on Belle Isle" and "The Miniature Man," Brown's first-person narrator is an elderly, reclusive man. In these two tales Brown subtly reveals her most compelling characters. Their personal history, both complex and simple, unfolds in rich detail of circumstance and sympathy.
Whether set in a Maine mortuary, a riding camp in the United Kingdom or the tiny, Spanish village of Monterojo, Brown's elegant writing transports the reader into place and time with confidence and style.
Virginia Commonwealth University launched an online journal of literature, Blackbird (www.blackbird.vcu.edu), on April 15. The site hosts a wide selection of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Additionally, the site has a gallery section with semimonthly audio and video features.