The Painted Ocean
Shruti is 11 years old when her father walks out on the family, never to return. She is left behind with a mother who speaks no English, in a town where she is the only South Asian girl at school. Her mother works from home, making girls’ dresses for 35 pence each and fretfully ignoring the mounting pile of bills in the hall. Her abandoned state is a matter of deep shame for her family back in Pakistan. It is South East England; the cusp of the ’90s. The whole country feels like a song by The Smiths.
It is a set-up of Dickens-level mawkishness, without the saving humour. Though to be fair to author Gabriel Packard, he does have a gift for driving narrative forward – a great flatfoot is jammed on the accelerator throughout. It isn’t long, for example, before Shruti’s great uncle Aadesh comes to visit from the subcontinent. He plans to start a carpet shop nearby, but not before he has married Shruti’s mother off to a new husband back home: one who is willing to overlook her sullied status but draws the line at taking in another man’s child. Shruti will have to be left by her beloved mother in a home.
By the time these events occur Shruti has met her saviour. Meena is the new girl at school: attractive, wild, brave and, most importantly, South Asian too. Meena gifts Shruti just enough of her attention for the meek and emotionally stricken girl to fall in love. Here is a friend for life, even if it is she who initiates an arson attack on Uncle Aadesh’s carpet shop. The plan is for Aadesh to go home and leave Shruti and her mother in peace. But he digs in and ensures that Shruti is eventually banished to a foster home.
At this point, the novel could be mistaken for a slice of social realism: a culture-clash getting of wisdom played out against a world of Betamax videos and schoolyard cigarettes. Despite the grating verbal tics given to narrator Shruti (“cos”, “mate”, “like” used as a vacuous filler), it’s fair to say that the reader identifies with and cares for the girl. Her situation is heartbreaking in a manner that exists apart from the blatant emotional manipulations employed by her creator.
And yet, as the second part of the book opens, it becomes clear that Packard has other plans. The girls are older now; Shruti has grown accustomed to separation from her mother but has never given up hope of reconciliation. At 18, she is released from the care of the state and her foster family, and heads to a university she has chosen purely because it is the same one Meena is planning to attend.
But Meena has grown up faster than her obsessive friend, barely settling into her college rooms before deciding to head to the United States to study theatre. So terrified is Shruti at losing her one link to home (and a mercurial, distant and disengaged one at that), that she persuades Meena to accompany her on a brief working holiday to New Zealand – one last buddies’ fling before Meena’s transatlantic move. Even as she spends every penny she has on the tickets, Shruti knows that Meena has said yes merely to placate her. Meena will find a way to back out.
It is at this point that an already erratic novel starts displaying signs of true mental disorder. The narrative, which has so far moved at a decent clip, flips the nitro switch. Suddenly we’re in India, where Meena and Shruti are reunited, and where Meena bullies and cajoles Shruti into joining her on a mystery trip: perhaps to find Shruti’s mother who returned to the subcontinent and her family some time before.
What happens next is so bizarre and unfulfilling that it’s hardly worth holding back on plot spoilers. The social realist document becomes a surreal account of kidnapping, forced labour and sexual slavery. Its pages contain buried gold bullion and Philippine sailors and an uninhabited fertile jungle island, 700 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka. It represents a total rescission of the contract between reader and author. It jettisons the accumulated psychological heft that the early chapters seemed designed to build. It is as though the novel, like some unfortunately afflicted family pet, has gone from gambolling in the backyard to frothing at the mouth.
Like any vulgar spectacle, it has attractions: there is plenty of gruesome violence and human extremity to go round. But the increasing urgency and grotesquerie brought to bear suggests the panic of an author who, having lost command of his material, decides to up the narrative ante in compensation. There is nothing wrong with fantastical effects and unlikely occurrences in fiction. But there has to be an underlying unity to even the strangest fictional universe. The Painted Ocean is built from a thousand incompatible parts.
Early reviewers of the novel have drawn attention to its politically problematic aspects. They have asked whether it is an act of appropriation for a middle-aged white male to employ the voice of a young South Asian woman. The author, evidently conscious of this possibility, arranges some pre-emptive self-defence in a scene set in a creative writers’ group towards the story’s end. Yet this is not the real problem with the book.
T. S. Eliot defended his own poetical bricolage by claiming, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Less often quoted is what follows immediately after: “Bad poets deface what they take ...” The degree to which we forgive a writer their acts of appropriation is not an ethical judgement so much as an aesthetic one. If they do it well, we forgive them, because they have ennobled or illuminated the Other: which is pretty much the novelist’s job description.
After gaming the whole system against a young Pakistani girl, after having her bureaucratically orphaned, socially isolated, bullied, beaten and raped, Packard owes her the full force of his intelligence and creative powers. Instead, he retrieves her from a horrific entrapment using a patently ludicrous and facile fairytale. He has done nothing wrong in telling Shruti’s story; he has done her a disservice by not telling it well. AF
Corsair, 512pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 19, 2016 as "Gabriel Packard, The Painted Ocean". Subscribe here.