Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

The Far Field Book Cover The Far Field [2019] – ★★★

The Far Field is a debut book of the Indian author Madhuri Vijay. It tells of a privileged young woman (Shalini) who embarks on a journey from her home town Bangalore, India to the Kashmir region in search of a man (Bashir Ahmed) who was once her family’s friend. While we follow Shalini’s journey into one region filled with political instability and conflict, we are also taken back and introduced to Shalini as a child. When Shalini was a small girl, she and her mother had a frequent visitor in their house while Shalini’s father was at work. Handsome Bashir Ahmed lavished Shalini and her mother with his affection and kindness, and his departure from Bangalore is still something the family cannot accept. Madhuri Vijay describes the location and her characters vividly, trying to make her story poignant, and we may assume that we will be reading a beautiful story of one girl on a redemptive pursuit of a man (Bashir Ahmed) in the mountains of the Kashmir region. However, unfortunately, The Far Field really ends up to be an unrealistic story of much ado about nothing. There is no real mystery to uncover here nor is there any special insight to be gained from the characters. Perhaps, only Shalini’s random actions surprise and even shock, and not in a positive way at all. 

The Far Field has two narratives interchanging each other: one where Shalini is twenty-four years old and going to a little Himalayan village in the Kashmir region to search for Bashir Ahmed; and another narrative where she recalls her childhood and her relationship with her mother – both she and her mother once made a close friend of a handsome door-to-door salesman Bashir Ahmed. This friend then stopped visiting Shalini’s family under yet uncertain to us circumstances. The book also starts strongly, with the narrator Shalini hinting at some mysterious event that had taken place in the past – a mystery that is connected to Bashir Ahmed, a man who left Bangalore when she was a child. Shalini also hints to us that she was to blame for the disappearance of this man from her life, and we may think initially that, perhaps, this novel will be akin to Ian McEwan’s Atonement [2001], with the narrator taking us on her perilous journey to redeem herself and bring peace and finality to her herself and her family. Shalini does embark on a journey, but the process and the result are far from an intriguing mystery we may have envisaged at first.

One of the good elements of The Far Field is the writing and the distinctive voice of the narrator, for example, there is this interesting sentence when Shalini describes her father: “he had the intelligent man’s faith in the weight of his own ideas, and the emotional man’s impatience with anyone who did not share them” [Madhuri Vijay, 2019: 6]. At the start of the story, Shalini also appears very sympathetic to us and we do start to root for her since she is this young and directionless girl who has just finished university and is grieving the death of her mother. Shalini has an unfulfilling relationship with a young photographer Hari and does not know where her life is supposed to go, until she spontaneously decides to track down an old friend of her family – Bashir Ahmed – and goes to a far-off region in the Asian continent to find this man that may not even be alive now.

One of the major problems for me when reading this novel was that I thought the story lacked realism. We have a naïve and inexperienced young woman going across India and reaching remote regions of the country all by herself, and all the people that she meets on her journey show her nothing but kindness and hospitality, willing to help her, such as the families of Abdul Latief and of Riyaz. This is fine, but then, at some point, Shalini goes out of her small room, which she is renting on her own in a cramped hotel filled with poor people in an unknown area, and on the streets flirts with a lone soldier, asking him for a cigarette. She has met this solider only a second ago in an area where it is hard to say who is one’s enemy or who is one’s friend, but then thinks immediately that she “wants to become this soldier’s student”. Shalini does not think much about possible dangers facing a young and inexperienced woman travelling alone into a region torn by conflict and random violence (something which is hard to believe happening in real life). Another issue is that, quite suddenly, Madhuri Vijay then decides that that her book is better as a thriller after all, and, in the last hundred or so pages, we encounter a strange whirlpool of events that all begin happening to Shalini. This main character is always the centre of the world in this story, forging best of friendships with people she met just hours ago and even flirting with an army commander, who treats her as an honourable guest.

The Far Field is a debut novel that promises a very interesting story set in one very curious corner of the world. It is therefore a pity that Vijay’s novel ends up to be so unrealistic, as well as ludicrously plotted and characterised, losing its compelling force completely near the end.

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17 thoughts on “Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

  1. I like this review. I was indifferent to this novel, and in India it did not get positive reviews for obvious reasons. A lot of reviewers in the west found it rather well written, and I can understand why; for similar reasons the orientalists found this country fascinating! Madhuri Vijay failed to engage the socio-political complexities that constitute the Kashmir valley, and it seems as though she decided to use the valley as one of the locales in her narrative just to get the immediate attention the name Kashmir triggers in people.

    If you wish to read some of the best writings from India, you can read novels like Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil, Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy, Surface by Siddhartha Deb, Last Man In Tower by Aravind Adiga, and just about any work of Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I wanted to like The Far Field, but it was rather disappointing, and I also thought the author handled many elements in her novel very oddly, including the socio-political situation. I did not know about its reception in India, interesting – thanks for letting me know.

      And thanks very much for these amazing suggestions! I now want to read Narcopolis and Sleeping on Jupiter in particular. Both sound just fabulous. Re Ghosh, I will probably start with Sea of Poppies, too. I am familiar with Salman Rushdie and also am looking forward to reading his latest book Quichotte. I guess the problem is always finding time to read all the books 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great review! This was a 3-star read for me, as well. I haven’t read much set in India so I liked the way the author described the physical place, but I completely agree with you re: characterization. I couldn’t stand how ignorant Shalini seemed of the possibility that her actions might affect others; she seemed unbelievably careless for someone traveling to an unfamiliar location. It was off to a promising start, and I enjoyed the childhood part of the narrative, but I agree the adult timeline unraveled toward the end.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! I am glad you agree with me on this one. I too thought Shalini was odd as a character. She behaved like she was fifteen, and I just could not accept that a girl who was raised in Bangalore (even if she is from a privileged background) would be so ignorant about her own country and its ways. She sometimes behaved like she was a tourist from some European country or something. It was rather strange.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I find India such an interesting place and would love to read more books from there. However, after reading your review, I don’t think this one will go on my wish list. Sometimes, a lack of realism can be ok, it really depends on the context and style of the novel, but combined with a weak plot and sudden change into a thriller, I doubt this one is for me. I enjoyed your review though!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Interesting. When you gave the synopsis, I assumed a book like this relied on realism (most book centered around characters do), and so I’m surprised when you said it lacked realism. I’ve read a few books like that. When you read a strong mystery or fantasy, sometimes the genre overcomes realism without detriment to the plot, but books like this need to be centered in real life to feel at all compelling.

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    1. I agree with you about the importance of realism in books like this one and therefore was very surprised about “The Far Field”. I even had this feeling when reading this book that it was all Shalini’s dream, like she was dreaming about her perfect journey, and then she would wake up and find herself finally in real world. That’s how almost surreal it all was.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It does not happen often for me. If I liked some debut, I am following this author since it is interesting to see how they progress. Having said that, now that I think about it – I have not loved that many debuts this year at least 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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