Aug 20, 2008

The Zigzag Way by Anita Desai (and a few other things)

The Zigzag Way is divided into four sections. The first concerns Eric, a young American who follows his girlfriend Em into Mexico. Because she’s busy with her research, Eric is left alone most of the time, and ends up leaving Mexico City to travel to the Sierra Madre Oriental, where he hopes to find out more about his family. As he discovered shortly before his trip, his father was actually born in Mexico, and his grandfather was a Cornish miner who immigrated there in the 1910’s.

The second section mostly concerns Doña Vera, a woman known as the “Queen of the Sierra”. Doña Vera is a renowned expert on the Huichol Indians, and her house, the Hacienda de La Soledad, is a research centre that attracts students and experts from all over the world. However, as we soon find out, not everything about this woman is as it seems.

The third section tells Betty’s story. Betty is Eric’s grandmother, and as a young woman she immigrates from Cornwall to Mexico to marry Davey and settle in one of the mining communities. As you can imagine, the process of adapting to a new culture and way of living is not exactly easy. Finally, in the fourth section, set in the Dia de los Muertos, we return to Eric, and the three previous storylines more or less come together in a ghostly finale.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I bought it impulsively when I found it in a bargain bin last year because I was drawn to the Day of the Dead-ish cover, and plus the author’s name was vaguely familiar (it turns out that it was her daughter Kiran that I had in mind). I guess impulse buys are always a little risky. But let’s start with what I liked about this book.

My favourite thing was the setting. Anita Desai brought Mexico and the Day od the Dead to life perfectly. Reading this book taught me quite a few things: about the Mexican revolution (it probably helped that I looked up a few things after reading Pedro Páramo), about the mining industry in the early twentieth century, about the Huichol people and their traditions. I liked the fact that every chapter was preceded by a citation from a historical source concerning the conquest of Mexico. I also liked Betty a lot. Her endurance, her strong will, her courage. Her story was by far my favourite of the three. I loved reading about what life was like in a small mining community in the new world, especially for women.

And that brings me to the first problem. If only I’d managed to care about Eric and Doña Vera as much as I did about Betty, I’d have loved this book. But I never truly got into their stories, and they never quite felt like actual people to me. The second problem is the writing. It’s not that it’s bad – there are some really great descriptions – but Anita Desai is apparently not a big fan of commas. As a result, you get sentences that are four or five lines long and don’t have a single punctuation mark.

Now, I’d take too few commas over too many any day of the week, but the way I see it, punctuation is supposed to be invisible. Most of the time, when you start noticing it, or noticing its absence, something has gone wrong. Maybe her intention was to give the book an urgent, breathless voice, but it just didn’t work. I found myself noticing all the missing commas, and becoming increasingly annoyed as the book advanced.

So would I recommend this book? Yes and no. It’s very short, so it will hardly feel like a waste of time. And it has its strong points. But I strongly suspect this is not Anita Desai at her best.

(Have you also reviewed this book? If so, let me know in the comments and I'll add a link to your review.)


I'm a bit late with this, so must of you must have seen it, but in case anyone's missed it, the 14h edition of the Bookworms Carnival is up at The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness. The theme is a great one - Children's and YA literature - and Florinda did a great job. If you haven't yet, make sure you check it out.

Secondly, Amy at My Friend Amy is hosting Book Blogger Appreciation Week between the 15th and the 19th of September. This sounds like it will be fun. Click on the button to find out more.

Jeane at Dog Ear Diary is celebrating her first blogiversary in the traditional way - with a giveaway! She'll select two winners who'll get to choose a book from a pile. There are some great books to choose from! Go here to find out more.

Finally, Melody is also having a giveaway. She's giving away an audibook of In My Dreams, a collection of short stories by Garden Spells author Sarah Addison Allen. To be entered, leave her a comment here before the 26th.

15 comments:

  1. I would have been totally sucked in by the cover, too. Too bad it wasn't a better read!

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  2. Hmmm, if you posted this a couple of days back then I probably wouldn't have bought the book for the cover and the fact that it was on sale :) Kidding.

    I haven't read any Desai (the mother or daughter) so I thought I should give this a try. And the cover is really nice.

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  3. I like the cover a lot too! But I won't be buying this one Punctuation stuff drives me nuts too I can't stand it when sentences seem to run on forever and there just isn't a comma where there really should be one therefore making you really aggravated and distracting you from the story completely to the point where you can't even enjoy it it's such a pain ;)

    In all seriousness...It does drive me nuts. That, and the lack of character development. I doubt I'd even make it through the book. But the cover rocks! And the history aspect sounds cool. Thanks for the giveaway links too. I'm excited about the Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

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  4. That's a nice cover! Too bad about the lacking of punctuation marks though... I think I'd have a hard time reading it if any punctuation gets in the way, too distracting! If I remember correctly, I think The Road is like that too and it took away my reading pleasure.

    Finally, thanks so much for mentioning my giveaway! :D

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  5. If you're thinking about giving her another try you could read her YA book 'The Village by The Sea', its a good read

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  6. It is interesting how lack of punctuation can work for one author but not another--I think McCarthy uses it (or doesn't) very well and it works for the type of fiction he writes.

    I tend to be an impulse buyer as well when I am bargain shopping and this cover definitely would have gained my attention. They are risky--but sometimes you find a true gem. Sorry this wasn't one of them.

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  7. You're certainly not alone in your impulse buying based on cover images...I do that often myself. I'm sorry to hear this was a disappointment. The comma thing would have driven me nuts as well. Sometimes things like this work, but when they don't they provide an incredible distraction from the story itself.

    It is a really fun cover though!

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  8. I like the cover of this book too but I don't think I am going to read it... Sometimes I have to do the impulse buy by cover thing just to get something different, but generally there are so many books I know I really want to read and only so much time to do so, so I stick with what other people have said is good... (ha, yeah, right. Thinking now I think there have been a couple posts this year where I have started off saying that I bought such and such book because I liked the cover...)

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  9. Daphne: I'm glad I'm not the only one who's lured by pretty covers!

    Lightheaded: Like I said, I don't think it will feel like a waste of time. It has the advantage of being quite a fast read too.

    Chris: LOL! That's a perfect example :P The book really is like that! And yeah, I wish there had been more to those first two characters. I guess the book's brevity was a disadvantage when it comes to that.

    Melody: It's funny that you mention The Road, because that's an example of a book with weird punctuation where it didn't bother me at all! After some time I became so engrossed in the story that I stopped noticing it altogether. But at the same time I can see how it would be distracting for other readers.

    Katrina: Thanks for the recommendation! I'll keep that one in mind.

    Trish: Like I was telling Melody, the punctuation in The Road didn't bother me at all. I agree that McCarthy uses it very well! Perhaps it helps that even though he doesn't use commas, he doesn't write sentences that go on forever either. And you're right, impulse buys are risky, but sometimes they lead to great finds. I discovered one of my favourite books (and authors) like that - Diana Wynne Jones' Fire & Hemlock.

    Carl: I'm glad I'm not alone! And yes, those things work sometimes, but I think it takes a lot of skill. And that was missing in this book.

    Kailana: You make a good point, but I also suspect I'll continue to pick up books because of their covers every now and then. At least these days I use Bookmooch, so if I end up with something I don't like I can always add it to my inventory there.

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  10. I like punctuation. There are certain writers who can use weird styles in their writing, but the key is that it can't be noticeable. After a while it should blend in.

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  11. What a fantastic cover... I will keep this book in mind - maybe not rush to get it - but Mexico is of course something near and dear to my heart :)

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  12. Kim: Exactly.

    Iliana: The setting is definitely the best thing about this book :)

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  13. Like you I read her name and thought it was familiar and again I was thinking of Kiran! It does sound like an interesting book and I am sorry you didn't warm to all the characters. Cool cover though!

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  14. The cover is certainly attention-grabbing. This does sound like an interesting book. I may have to give it a closer look. Sometimes if I know a book's flaws upfront, I can adjust my expectations accordingly and still enjoy a book.

    Great review, Nymeth. I love how much thought and balance you put into your review writing.

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  15. Rhinoa: It was too bad it wasn't better, but at least I didn't hate it. I hope to read Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss sometime. It's been on my wishlist for so long that I'd almost forgotten about it.

    Literary Feline: Aww, thank you :) And yes, the same thing happens to me.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.