The Painted Ocean
Little, Brown Book Group UK
Pub Date: 03 Mar 2016
Well, well, here is a book destined to cause arguments in Book clubs around the world.
The debut novel from Gabriel Packard is one of those arriving with stellar praise for some big hitting writers. Colum McCann says of the novel ‘as fearless tour de force. It is a rare achievement – an emotionally rich work of literature, delivered in the form of a gripping, page-turning story.”
So, what’s it about. This is certainly one of those instances where the book you end up getting is not the one you think you’re getting at the start. Most of the first half of the book is set in England and follows 11 year old Shruti. Her dad left home when she was younger and now it’s just her and her mom. This is fine for Shruti as she has her mom all to herself. But, there is no happy ever after on the horizon in this story. Her mother is under pressure to return to the Punjab and remarry. Her Uncle Aadesh has lined up a good match, but there is a catch – she has to leave Shruti – put her into care. Shruti is sure her mother will not abandon her, but her uncle is persistent. Meanwhile life at school is no better. She physically and verbally picked on and bullied for being Indian. Her life is falling apart. Then a new girl, Meena, joins the school and immediately transforms Shruti’s life. Confident and confrontational, she soon has the bullies wrapped around her finger and coming to Shruti’s defence. She also has some suggestions on how to keep Shruti’s mother in the country. Shruti becomes obsessed with her saviour.
This first half of the novel, depicting Shruti’s childhood life was a mostly engaging tale of British Indian adolescence and was told with an air of believability and verve that at times reminded me of Meera Syal. Her voice felt true and there was a real sense of the loneliness, neglect, rejection, feelings of abandonment, racism, and bullying that pervades her life. She feels real and as a reader you care about what will happen to her.
Where things start to go wrong however is when the book suddenly moves ahead in time to University and beyond. At first you think we are going to go all ‘stalker’, when in fact it goes all Lord of the Flies/The Beach and becomes totally preposterous, losing any sense of reality.
If horrible things happened in the first half of the book, really horrible things happen in the second half of the book. The problem is that I quickly became so emotional unengaged, that ultimately I wasn’t truly bothered what happened to any of the characters as these horrors descended. One of the main faults for this lies with the fact that Shruti’s voice remains the same. What had first felt like a sense of authenticity, just starts to jar and not fit at all with where things are and what is happening. She ceases to be at all believable.
This is not say that parts of this second half of the book aren’t well written, and tense, they are; it is just they don’t gel or feel part of what preceded it. I presume we are meant to view the second half of the book as allegorical and as a further exploration of the themes we have already covered in the book’s first half, but whilst that may be fine and dandy, it doesn’t really cut it for me if the story-telling doesn’t support it.
The ending is equally ridiculous and meta with a self critic of the novel – trying to address the criticism of the book before it even happens. It is all a bit too knowing and ‘look at me, aren’t I clever’ from a man who teaches writing at New York’s Hunter College and has worked for literary big hitters such as Peter Carey, Jonathan Franzen and E.L. Doctorow.
That all said, there is still just enough to like and admire in Packard’s debut, to make him an author to watch in the future, but The Painted Ocean is ultimately an uneven and confused disappointment.
Review copy provided by Little Brown/NetGalley