Book Review

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

mainstream literary fiction that is actually worth reading

 this is a test I’m trying to write this post using the voice to text software on my old cheap phone I just finished reading a spying on me a fine balance by Roy Hinton mystery accident at this is going to save me X I have to leave the house but soon again even though I wanted to have my hands-free to hold a bowling ball to the house no I’m not in a hospital get hazards corrected I’m not sad edit into something useful

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Well, that isn’t fucking working at all, is it? Still, it was nice to try. For a few minutes, I felt very contemporary, very new, very now. Maybe if I have a superior phone at some point in the future I can try again, but right now I will use my classic blogging method of typing notes quickly in an email and sending it to myself to edit at a later point when I’m in front of my laptop and neither too tired nor too sad to deal with.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry was published in 1996 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, which makes a lot of sense. It’s a very good literary novel in the tradition of “very good literary novels”: there are lots of characters, lots of “big themes”, some gorgeous images and powerful characterisation, but – of course – it’s uncomfortably long and all but one significant character is a man.

The novel is set in India in 1975, during the period known as The Emergency, when Indira Gandhi became a dictator after being found guilty of fixing an election. The novel is about four people – two untouchables from rural India (a young man, Omprakash and his uncle Ishvar, who became the boy’s guardian after his brother (Om’s father) was murdered in caste-motivated violence), a student at a technical college, Maneck (raised in the mountains of the far north in a no-longer-upwardly-mobile lower middle class family who, certain that their no-long-rising fortunes will not reverse, have sent their only son away to study) and Dina Dilal, a single “but still beautiful” (very trad literary novel lol) woman in her mid forties who married for love as a young woman but was tragically widowed just as her snobbish family began warming to her boyfriend.

Supporting characters include a psychologically spiralling former barber turned hair merchant, a proof reader turned political speech writer turned budget lawyer, a man who performs tricks with monkeys then replaces the monkeys with children, an optimistic and kind-hearted beggar who is missing both legs and most fingers, and “the Beggarmaster’, the man who – a la The Beggars Opera slash Threepenny Opera – runs the city-wide begging racket, alongside a very profitable sideline in extortion, protection, loan-sharking and body modifications (including non consensual ones…).

The novel is huge and sprawling with its scope, and incredibly generous with its characterisation, though not generous to its characters. This is a novel about the realities of life in a turbulent political climate in a highly-populated country, it’s about state repression and corruption and poverty: there are many many “endings” here, almost all of them very very unhappy. Not all of them, though, not all.

A Fine Balance is an uncompromising text about hardship and the horrors of authoritarian government, and though terrible things happen, the terrible things that happen are not the only events and nor are they the events that define people’s existences.

Is this a realist novel? Yes. It’s exactly the kind of novel that wins the Booker Prize, it’s very much a Booker Prize-y novel, so if you’re into this kind of literary fiction then you really should [have] read this. The prose is lovely and fucking evocative: in the week I spent reading this very fine novel I found myself dreaming intensely of the urban and rural landscapes that Mistry here describes, none of which I’ve ever seen in reality.


I read “traditional literary fiction” less often now than I used to, basically because when they’re not explicitly excellent I tend to find myself bored by the genre. A competent mainstream literary novel isn’t entertaining for me any more: I read enough, when I was younger, to last a lifetime.

Literary fiction is a genre as much as fantasy is a genre, as much as crime is a genre, as much as whatever is a genre: I can read your average mainstream literary novel with my eyes closed, and these days I often find myself about to (i.e. they make me fall asleep).

Mainstream literary novels tell the same stories about the same people in the same places in the same ways. It doesn’t matter if the novel in question is English or American or a translation from French or German or Japanese or whatever, the lives of middle class people with university educations anywhere in Western Europe, North America, Australia or Japan are not inherently interesting. What does need to be present to make these novels worth reading if – like me – you’ve already read a thousand of ’em? In my opinion:

  • The prose (including translation) needs to be beautiful;
  • the characters need to be real;
  • the events that happen to them need to move me.

Literary fiction is a conservative and middle class style of writing (literally propagated by the CIA), but it can be invigorated when used to describe lives that are not those things: to apply mainstream literary fiction to descriptions of slums and torture and repression and great tragedy is a more valid use of the form. Here, in Mistry’s hands, mainstream literary fiction doesn’t feel so tired: it is alive and powerful and appropriate. Traditional realism is a style of writing all readers are familiar with, and it would be churlish of me to pretend that its familiarity does not lend an ease and clarity, perhaps, when it is used to explore situations that are distant from those of its average middle-class reader.

The 1990s was a decade when lots of big novels of this form were receiving inappropriate levels of acclaim: there’s a reason why the shine of the last generation of “great American novelists” has faded: it’s because there was nothing in, for example, Jonathan Franzen’s hit novels that hadn’t been done thousands of times before [since the 1950s]. Mistry, however, is doing things with a conservative form that had not been done before, though he is, of course, constrained by – and victim to – some of the hang-ups dictated by the style (eg the preferencing of male experience).

A Fine Balance is about class and love and race and politics, it is about travel and youth and ageing and ambition, it is about poverty and beauty and hope and grief: it is a big novel that artfully, and intelligently, considers many facets of life: both its horrors and its pleasures. The image of India in the 1970s that Mistry evokes isn’t as a place of safety or a place of joy, but the image he evokes is a deep and fully-realised one. This is immersive, realist fiction that is hard to put down and hard to forget about.

Tbh, I loved it. Big props to the friend who recommended it, many years ago.

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2 comments on “A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

  1. Pingback: Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes – Triumph Of The Now

  2. Pingback: Life of Pi by Yann Martel – Triumph Of The Now

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