Of late, I have been wary of picking up a chunkster to read – no, not because they have lost their appeal but because I have come to attach greater value to the time I have at hand. Almost to the point of being miserly to let it go without doing my best dance with it, I seem to love time more than anything else…well, almost.
That, however, didn’t deter me from dipping my heart into the world of this book. And what an intense journey it turned out to be!
Living a third of this month with four friends whose life, in a strange, sinewy way, didn’t feel unfolding at the faraway New York but somewhere much closer home, left me in a cocoon that was both nourishing and crumbling. Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB – across forty-five odd years of their lives – forge friendships, witness failures, get success, find love, embrace families, lose love, foster faith, strike gold, bear attacks, fall horrific, rise strong, erase memories, accept truths and under the overwhelming cloud of this story, redeem themselves.
Many readers of this book have termed it gut-wrenching, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that in many places, sometimes expectedly and sometimes unexpectedly, it IS gut-wrenching. One of the characters in the book is the victim of such sustained abuse that the incidents, from his childhood and adulthood, peppered with his innocence and inability to stall it, made me nauseous. I wished it stopped, I wished he grew the weapon to annihilate it completely from his life. But he, ominous as he was in his professional life, continued to falter, getting deceived and be a body and soul for anyone’s play, both curious and sadistic.
But the book is also an ode to friendship, the kind one hopes to have, even if with one person over an entire lifetime. There is love, no doubt – an enviably beautiful flower of love that remains resilient to the vagaries of changing seasons of the life – but the friendship, for me, was the pure, unstilted air that made everyone breathe, despite their individual problems. The thread of friendship that Hanya not just binds Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB with but also, Andy, Harold, Julia and Richard, made my heart full.
If I would have read this book when I met Hanya over five years ago, I would have expressed, in my best possible arrangement of words (for I cannot get over her exquisite writing), the desire to see this work edited by about two hundred pages. With her calibre, I am certain, I would have still felt the punch in the gut, fallen gobsmacked and experienced the balm of friendship, unhindered.
And would have done the dance with time, not minding the tripping because the best dances are not those where one doesn’t trip but those where every tripping is succeeded by a getting up, with or without a partner.
The writing, almost single-handedly, makes reading this book worthwhile. Here is an excerpt from a chapter where Willem and Jude have had a huge fight and Willem has, eventually, returned to apologize.
They are quiet for a long time. “Do you remember the time you told me you were afraid that you were a series of nasty surprises for me?” he asks him, and Jude nods, slightly. “You aren’t,” he tells him. “You aren’t. But being with you is like being in this fantastic landscape,” he continues, slowly. “You think it’s one thing, a forest, and then suddenly it changes, and it’s a meadow, or a jungle, or cliffs of ice. And they’re all beautiful, but they’re strange as well, and you don’t have a map, and you don’t understand how you got from one terrain to the next so abruptly, and you don’t know when the next transition will arrive, and you don’t have of the equipment you need. And so you keep walking through, and trying to adjust as you go, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and often you make mistakes, bad mistakes. That’s sometimes what it feels like.”
They’re silent. “So basically,” Jude says at last, “basically, you’re saying I’m New Zealand.”
It takes him a second to realize Jude is joking, and when he does he begins to laugh, unhingedly, with relief and sorrow, and he turns Jude toward him and kisses him. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, you’re New Zealand.”