A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A solitary cashier in an all-night garage is haunted by visions of real life and death, but is unable to intervene … until dramatic events force him to venture beyond his limits. He stumbles into hope, love, true insight – and Tamil London, where the hidden stories of others come to light. There’s Kandy (a sex worker and psychology student), The Whistling Woman and, most important of all, the mysterious garage manager, Siva. … (This) is a story of London’s immigrants: a novel that explores dislocation and delusion, but becomes bright with possibility and love.
Well, gosh. That’s some blurb, and this book is most definitely some novel. Though I do feel that, once again (see my review of The Floating Order of 20 June 2009), Two Ravens Press have misinterpreted the story they’re trying to sell in that I don’t think it’s about London’s immigrants at all. That said, the author herself focused on the immigration aspect in her recent interview for The Guardian where she also lists her top ten immigration novels. An interesting read for sure but, for me, this book is actually about Terry (the cashier) and his relationships with the people around him, especially his manager, Siva. Which is what in fact sets this novel apart and fascinatingly so; in essence The Winding Stick is a novel about work, work colleagues and work friendship – a subject that writers rarely have the courage to tackle, and the book is therefore a revelation as it proves once for all that it can be done. In both a literary and very accessible way. Three cheers for Ms Valmorbida for that.
It also came to me while I was reading that this novel raises some very deep questions about religion and the interface between religion and humanity. Siva, the manager, spends a lot of the book not being there at all, but his influence pervades the garage and Terry’s life in a way that gradually becomes all encompassing. In this way, Siva becomes a god-like figure around whom the other characters orbit:
“I try to imitate Siv’s handwriting, think as he might – but it doesn’t work. I don’t know much about Siv. Not everyone is porous.”
Siva is also a very attractive character, an impression largely conveyed through Terry’s concern for him and his increasing anxiety when Siva goes missing and may possibly be in danger. Although when Siva does appear in the story directly, he doesn’t disappoint, and the reader comes to care for him as much as Terry does.
There are also aspects of Terry which are, in one sense, Christ-like: he’s a man set apart by who he is; he possesses a (very well written) supernatural and detailed knowledge of the truth of other people’s lives; and he’s a brilliant teller of stories. The hidden secrets of the garage customers come to startling life as he relates them to the reader, sometimes at length and sometimes in tiny but perfectly formed phrases:
“A legal secretary lifts the nozzle at Pump Number Two. She had sex with her boss last night. I authorise. A woman from Bethlehem pulls up in a khaki-coloured four-wheel drive. In the back seat, her daughter dozes against her violin case. The computer sings. I authorise. A bank manager pulls up to Pump Number Five. He has a private passion for little boys. It’s unrequited. I authorise.”
Indeed the contrast between the constraints of Terry’s life and the tales he comes to know provides a large part of the charm of this section of the book. There are however some people close to him, such as Siv and Kandy the sex worker, who Terry cannot catch the truth of. During one of his encounters with Kandy, he muses on the following:
“We’ve lasted longer than most marriages. I pop a tiny kiss on her forehead, avoiding the cigarette. I love her because she’s not porous, or perhaps she’s not porous because I love her.”
It is then the lack of love that gives clarity and the presence of it that takes it away. Later however, a frightening accident occurs at the garage that causes Terry to lose his gift entirely. He can no longer read other people in the manner that he is used to and must find other ways of dealing with the overwhelming strangeness of his world. For me, this brought to mind the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection where the powers of Christ are stripped away and he is buried for “three days and three nights” in the earth. Moreover, in the novel’s closing pages, Terry’s actions have about them a strong hint of sacrificial charity. Yes, I do accept that I may well be straining the connections a little here, but the fact remains that reading this book made me think more deeply both about my religion and my life, and the fluid connections between both. Any writer that can do that for me definitely gets my vote.
As I’ve mentioned, the power of storytelling permeates the novel. Here, for instance, Terry is authorising a petrol sale at the same time as the customer’s life history floods over him:
“The petrol is pouring like a story. The smell of it seeps through the slot at my window, rubs itself all over my skin, prickles my eyeballs, makes them weep.”
What can be more gripping, and indeed truer, than that? Stories do change people – the power they have is immense. It’s why people read. The stories Terry tells change our view of the people we’re reading about and is a reminder that, in life as in fiction, nothing is ever what it seems: innocent-looking men can be killers; and idle words can destroy, as well as heal.
The crux of the novel is, however, Terry’s search for Siva. This is therefore, more than anything, a novel about friendship. Terry’s initial search for his manager is a psychological and sedentary one: he reads Siva’s notes; hunts in his office for clues about the man; watches hours of garage video to try to understand him. When Siva actually does go missing, Terry’s search must become more active and he is forced out of his metaphorical comfort zone into the outside world he dreads purely in order to find the answers he craves: he visits the temples Siva frequents; talks to the man’s friends; breaks into his home; steals from him. To a certain extent, this becomes a sub-type of detective novel, and the rising tension supports this but, at the same time, it does not overpower the real heart of this story or the characters in it. The focus remains very much on Terry, his search and on the discoveries he makes; the reader spends time uncovering character rather than being hurried along by plot, and it’s a pleasure to be guided in this way, thus making it a book to savour rather than one to race through.
The closing scenes in the novel deal with the final encounter between Terry and Siva when the garage manager returns, and are both uplifting and ultimately devastating. A cleverly drawn financial misunderstanding darkens the clarity between the two men, and it is here I think that the novel fails to satisfy for the first time. I appreciate that the trend for literary fiction these days is for a downbeat ending and a sense of the dark, but I would like to question now why that should be so. Indeed I am not alone in this – a whole site has been set up for this purpose only and all power to them. They carry an article published in the Chicago Sun-Times in November 2005, which is also very interesting. People need to read good literary fiction that leaves them with a feeling of joy, not despair and grimness, particularly in these trying economic times. Or at any other time. After all, The Winding Stick is, at one major level, a story about an affair. Not a love affair by any nature of the game (and nor – unusually for me – did I want it to be so), but a “friendship affair” between two heterosexual men. It deals with the essential question of how men form friendships and how they deal with them. Note this incredibly charged but astonishingly clear prose towards the end of the novel:
“The forecourt is empty. The computer is silent. Siva is in his office. Just feet away. Alive. Here. He’s come back. I was late. My heart is singing. And I’m wearing his shoes.”
I think it would have been much braver and far stronger if Siva and Terry had been allowed to resolve their misunderstanding in a positive way, and it would have given an enormous sense of yes to the end of the book which doesn’t currently exist. I think we needed to stay more fully with the feelings engendered by the above quotation.
Nonetheless, it’s still my view that, in spite of this slight but key disappointment, this book is a literary classic in the making and you should read it as soon as you can. More please from Ms Valmorbida.