Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Mango Tree by Anthea Senaratna

When the Gratiaen shortlist was announced and I noticed this book among the six, I went out and bought it. Dressed with a nice attractive cover which is also quirky, Anthea Seneratna presents the reader with 16 stories in 121 pages. I read the book in one evening as it is a very easy read. I found some of the titles of the stories rather intriguing: Two Pieces of Chicken; Wednesdays and Weekends; Shut –ins; Rainburst etc.
Let me digress for a moment to set the stage before I comment on the book per se. Imagine yourself driving down Arnold Coomaraswamy Mawatha on the weekends, looking at the paintings hung all along the park boundary. Imagine yourself evaluating the paintings. While there are some extremely talented artists to be discovered here, most of them are pleasant, entertaining, nicely done but absolutely ordinary. They have talent but it is like a drawing room talent – certainly not art gallery talent.
When a book is shortlisted for the Gratiaen, you expect it to be art gallery talent not drawing room talent. Unfortunately, The Mango Tree while sweet and nice and pleasant and nicely written with good English and no grammatical errors, is eventually a mediocre book. It is definitely drawing room talent.
Now onto the stories:
It’s amazing how many middle class writers are obsessed about the poor, the underprivileged, the seamy side of life. A life that they know nothing of, can hope to know nothing of and they certainly would not want to know anything of and it shows in their writing. I call it the guilty middle class woman syndrome. So they will write about poor illtreated housewives, they write about soldiers injured in the war and unable to fit into ‘normal’ life. They write about unhappy women, unhappy situations far removed from their own experience.
For a book to grip you, to hold you spellbound, there has to be an element of truth and reality in it. Good writers, and I am not talking about great writers, but merely good writers have that ability of taking you through the most mundane of situations but holding you spellbound. When Arthur Golden wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, I am sure most readers completely forgot the writer was not a geisha, not a woman, not a Japanese. In Sri Lanka we have a few writers who can do this, but not many. Among the younger writer’s however, I can see a different breed who write about what they know, in their own style, and that makes all the difference.
For the first time since I started this blog, I am stuck. I do not quite know how to finish this review. I am not sure if I can say any more. But I will try. For a light read, this is certainly a good book. The English is good, the grammar is correct, some stories are amusing. The ones that stand out for me are: Tuition Class, Freedom Bound. Some stories had no point or were an indulgence for the writer. Perhaps if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize I might have been kinder. But because it was, and because I expected so much more, in all fairness to those who read, I cannot. However, I hasten to add, that I am sure there will be many people who will read this book and like it. It may sell well, and I do hope so. But in the end, in my opinion the book is a self indulgent exercise that has been offered to the public as literature.