Wednesday 23 July 2008

Book Review: Rani Manicka – Touching Earth

Rani Manicka’s first book, The Rice Mother, was a wonderful read for me, one I savoured and revisited. My accidental discovery of her second novel in a Pakistani bookshop whilst looking for something to accompany my daytime siesta was therefore a nice surprise.

Right at the outset Manicka makes it clear that this book is nothing like her first and that readers will be disappointed if they are looking for something similar. Whereas the first is set in Malaysia around the Second World War and takes us on a journey through several generations of a family, this book is set mainly in London amongst the celebrities, beautiful people, drug users and prostitute’s of the city. Like the Rice Mother there are several narrators and the story unfolds in retrospect like pieces of a jigsaw falling into place as the novel progresses. Both books are also laden with symbolism and exotic imagery.

Touching Earth is the story of beautiful and mysterious Balinese twins who visit Britain and are caught up in drug-use and prostitution. Their story is interspersed with that of a stunning, cold mistress with a secret, a stick-thin perma-tanned first wife, the golden play-boy restaurateur, the tart with a broken hart, a celebrity hairdresser with a hygiene obsession and a rather neurotic and cold-hearted artist. Some of the voices are more believable than others. The pneumatic WAG (footballers girlfriend) wannabe is jealous and sneaky. The Irish mistress of a nasty Arab comes across as genuinely vulnerable. The play-boy is portrayed as having great energy and as engaging in his vices with furious abandon so that you are carried along by his recklessness, although at times his self-denial is not quite believable – but perhaps that is the effect of drugs on otherwise coldly rational people. The twins come across as slightly spaced out throughout the book, even before their heroin addiction, perhaps an effect of looking back over the story. It’s a testament to Ms Manicka’s writing that with so many narrators, the story does not become confused; the different protagonist’s voices are distinct enough to prevent this. Manicka herself also turns up in her book in an interesting literary device, but not one that I felt added much to the book.

I did notice in a few places, cheap-shot comments about Arabs and Islam sneaked in hinting at both as barbaric. I expected more from a writer who in her previous book refers to so many cultures and is herself well-travelled.

I did find the book very readable, at times almost compulsively so, but after enjoying The Rice Mother so much, Touching Earth was something of a disappointment. I found it often predictable and some of the characters were slightly stereotypical. For such a depressing book, the ending felt slightly too good-to-be true, with the ends all tied up neatly.

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