A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #24:-
THE BOOK OF SHADOWS
Little, Brown hb, 217pp, £16.99
Bitya, a young university lecturer from Delhi, is scarred in an acid attack by the sister of her lover, who killed himself when she was unfaithful. She goes to an isolated house owned by her family where, thanks to the influence of the house and local community, she comes to terms with her disfigurement. Intercut with this are a lengthy extract from the journal of William James Cockerell, the Victorian missionary who built the house on a sacred spot to combat native superstition, and a rambling account by a spirit, perhaps the genius loci of the house itself, of the building’s long history of black magic, murder and lust.
There’s a lot on offer here, all packaged in a very fine prose style, vivid and assured, but ultimately the pieces of the puzzle don’t make up the picture on the box, or any coherent design at all really. The sense of India and its alien quality is strongly evoked, of strangers in a strange land, and with her western education Bitya seems ideally suited to act as a focus for this cultural clash, but all she does is name drop western bands and writers. The supernatural asides add little to the story, are simply a distraction, and Bitya’s recovery seems superficial; after endlessly dwelling on her tragic loss of beauty one morning she decides to brush her hair a different way and discovers that, ho hum, it doesn’t really look that bad after all. I had no feeling of a denouement reached, of any direction to the narrative. Of course life isn’t that structured, a point touched on by Gokhale herself in the story, as if to defuse inveitable criticism, but the impression left in the mind is of a runaway stockpiling of arbitrary effects in a portentous attempt to produce an Indian version of Allende’s House of the Spirits, leaving a novel that falls well short of its ambitions.