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Ghatage asserts more than novel can deliver

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FAMILY strife and an accident forever change the fortunes of two lovers in this story set against the backdrop of colonial India and the Blitz.

Calgary's Shree Ghatage received awards for her first novel, Brahma's Dream, and story collection Awake When All the World is Asleep. But this new work has the feel of a draft that needs attention to issues of theme, plot and character development and, unfortunately, to the craft of writing.

A young man with amnesia is found wandering in a small town in Wales in 1942. The villager who takes him in says he must be from India. The story flashes back to India, where the young man, Baba, lives with his wealthy family and has been married against his wishes to a girl he doesn't know.

Both Baba and Vasanti, his bride, are naïve about the physical relationship in a marriage and even about how to talk to one another. But time works in their favour, and in a few months the two strangers fall deeply in love.

Baba aspires to British ideals and is intent upon studying law in London, despite the risk of sea travel in time of war and the danger of the Nazi bombings in England. His determination is fuelled by anger and resentment toward his aloof father. Not even love for Vasanti can keep him home.

Ghatage intends her spare prose to convey a sense of displacement and tension. In his amnesiac state, though, she gives Baba a flat personality. He is a muddled observer, displaying little curiosity about his obviously alien status and about what's going on in the world that caused him to end up in this unexpected location.

As a result, there is little feel for the setting through his eyes, the challenges of a rural village and any sense of wonder or worry on the part of the townspeople at his presence. Most of the unsatisfying description and sense of place comes from his host's narration.

Contrast this to the simple, precise writing in J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, which creates vivid, unforgettable pictures of place and gripping tension for a character struggling in his new political and physical environment.

The first section of Thirst needs editing and refining. Unpolished sentences ("A pegged clothesline from which are fluttering washed clothes stands alongside a wooden trough"), overused images (characters "shrug" out of clothes repeatedly in the course of a few pages), and unexplained details (a delivery man appears out of nowhere) make the reading difficult.

Ghatage is clearly more comfortable in the chapters set in India. Yet again, it's hard to get a sense of the spaces in the mansion-sized house where Baba and Vasanti live with his three brothers and their wives.

Most problematic is that the themes of honour, loss and loyalty are weakly developed. Baba can write letters to the father he detests but not Vasanti, whom he misses most. The juxtaposition of London's gloom to India's green is not enough to explain why or to make Baba's physical and ethical problems a concern.

The conclusion is clearly hinted at earlier and, considering the time and events, not credible.

Ghatage asserts more than her novel can deliver. Weakly titled, it depicts no desperate thirsts to make this compelling reading.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

Thirst

By Shree Ghatage

Doubleday Canada, 352 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 J8

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