Ben Babcock's Reviews > The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji
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Mar 25, 2009

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bookshelves: from-library, 2010-read, canadian-author, historical-fiction, indian-fiction, postcolonial
Read from January 01 to 07, 2010

This is my first book of the year, and it took me quite some time to get into it.

Few things annoy me more than when an author decides to ignore such a useful stylistic conventions as using quotation marks to offset dialogue! I like quotation marks. It makes the book easier to parse and gives me a clear idea of who is saying what. I discarded Blindness for similar reasons. Had I not been more favourably disposed to M.G. Vassanji after reading The Assassin's Song , I might have done the same thing.

I have an inkling as to why Vassanji chose this departure from the norm. By abandoning quotation marks—in effect, dialogue itself—everything everyone says comes to us via Vikram and is interpreted and filtered through Vikram. All of the characters speak in Vikram's voice, and his is the only voice in the book for that reason. Still, this was an annoying aspect of The In-Between World that did not encourage me to continue reading.

After about the first third of the book, the story picks up as Vikram moves into adulthood. It's painful. That can be a good thing—and I didn't expect a story of unmitigated happiness here. Vassanji is capturing the zeitgeist in the microcosm of an individual, and seldom is the zeitgeist a wholly good one. Vassanji is careful, however, to portray the bad and the good. It was a time of murder and corruption, but it was also a time of hope and inspiration.

As a depiction of Kenya in the late twentieth century, this book fails to yield the scope required for a detailed understanding of the political dynamics at work. However, the interactions between the characters, particularly between Vikram and his relations, give us an idea of the pressures the external world puts upon everyone in Nairobi. Nairobi is much like the main character: a nexus of European, particularly British worldviews with East African identity and cultures. And that portrayal of personal transformation, of a change of identity as Kenya comes of age and gains independence, is the most rewarding part of The In-Between World.

This book has a perfect title. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall describes precisely what it is about. Vikram is in-between everything and everyone. As an Indian born and raised in Kenya, he is neither an "African" nor an outsider. He is alien to his own country. Among his family, he can never seem to take sides in issues. And in Kenya at large, he becomes a power and money broker, not out of avarice but because he gets caught up in larger affairs.

It's this sense of "going with the flow" and powerlessness that prevents me from sympathizing with Vikram. He only takes responsibility for his actions at the end; that's why he's telling this story, I suppose. It's difficult to criticize this, since it's an intentional component of Vikram's characterization, yet it detracted from my enjoyment of the book. As much as the life of an Indian family in Kenya fascinated me, as much as I cringed at the tragedy of Deepa and Njoroge's love, Vikram's constant disavowal of responsibility looms over the narrative like an approaching storm cloud.

If I have to generalize (and you know I do), I'd say that this is a worthy book. My criticism is subjective, so I don't want to warn people away because I disliked the lack of quotation marks or the characterization of the narrator. There's something in this book that will appeal to everyone, even if few people will find everything about the book appealing. Am I so sure it was worth the Giller? No, but then again, it's probably a good thing that I don't have to decide these matters.
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07/17/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Shireen (new)

Shireen I was thinking of putting this book on my to-read list, but after reading your review, I'll hold off. A lack of quotation marks, making it physically harder to read, is not something I want to contend with at this point!

I see a theme developing in your reviews. You like characters who take actions, who don't passively float through life but try to change events or at least not "go with the flow." Interesting! My two books, I like to think, feature strong women, both of whom have no control over the events that happen to them but both of whom don't passively react either. I wonder if an aversion to passivity is a Canadian trait...?


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Babcock Shireen wrote: "A lack of quotation marks, making it physically harder to read, is not something I want to contend with at this point!"

Quite so. I know quotation marks aren't standard in every country, but we've been trained to parse dialogue with quotation marks, so it's difficult to leave them behind. I always wince when an English-language book shows up that decides to eschew them.

Shireen wrote: "I see a theme developing in your reviews. You like characters who take actions, who don't passively float through life but try to change events or at least not "go with the flow.""

Hahaha … I'll take that as a compliment that you've read enough of my reviews to pick up on themes. I guess every critic has his or her obsessions.

Passive protagonists irk me because they often reveal a sort of laziness on the author's part. I want to know why a certain person has been chosen to be the main character of the story. Also, reading is itself a somewhat passive experience compared to interactive media, like video games, so I don't need that added layer. So when you have a character who does things, it's easier for me as a reader to stay engaged. There are, of course, exceptions, cases where passivity is clearly a part of the author's larger goals (and sometimes those fail to pass my muster as well). Shadow, from American Gods , is rather passive until the climax (though he has a few interesting moments in between).

But yeah, in this case I suppose I disliked that Vikram never really took a stand and chose a side. He was just sort of there; he wasn't even in it for himself. So it was difficult to sympathize with his plight.


message 3: by Shireen (new)

Shireen Ben wrote: "Passive protagonists irk me because they often reveal a sort of laziness on the author's part."

Interesting. It's not so much the passivity as the fact it reads like the author is being lazy that you seem to object to? So if the author is writing a passive character, they need to somehow indicate the "why" behind the passivity. And perhaps use the passivity to set up conflict so that the conflict acts as the "doing" part that's missing from the character. Also, the author needs to make the passivity not so off-putting as to annoy the reader. Tough to do! But something to think about!


message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Babcock Shireen wrote: "Interesting. It's not so much the passivity as the fact it reads like the author is being lazy that you seem to object to?"

I object to bad writing and poor characterization. :P

I believe that with writing, as with many spheres, there is no rule too sacred to break. Hence, I won't say that a passive protagonist is bad in every case, because authors can and do make it work. In my experience, however, it is hard to make a passive protagonist work: "protagonist" comes from the Greek agonist, a "contender" or "champion". To me, this automatically implies some kind of action (whether it's intellectual or physical, or both).


message 5: by Khalekan (new) - added it

Khalekan Totally agree about the lack of quotation marks.

What makes an author think this is a good thing to do?

Is it supposed to show he or she is clever?

It does absolutely nothing to enhance the story.....all it does is make the book harder to read as pages of apparently unrelenting narration puts many people off.


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