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Last Man in Tower – darkness looming

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I loved Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger so I was excited when I was bought Last Man in Tower. There’s no doubt that Adiga is a hugely talented author; he has a beautiful way of phrasing things, a way with description that has you fully immersed – Mumbai in this book is a city under construction and you can hear the cacophony of noise, smell the greed in the air.

The residents of the crumbling Vishram Society tower block are made an offer by oily property tycoon Dharmen Shah. He wants to knock down the society and build new luxury apartments. Some residents with dreams of polished wood cupboards or gleaming new cars are ready to jump at the chance but others, like the blind Mrs Pinto and retired teacher Masterji, resist. As the deadline looms closer, relationships in the society fracture, then detonate, and the residents find themselves in situations that were previously unimaginable.

Despite an interesting premise and Adiga’s obvious skill as a writer, this book fell a little flat for me. There are so many characters that it’s hard to truly get to know any of them, except perhaps for Masterji, whose increasingly untenable position in the society, and everything that goes along with it, leads him to a new understanding of himself. At times, this is deeply moving – he has long been inflexible and self-regarding – and he never becomes an unequivocal hero – but he is stripped bare here in a way that is both uncomfortable and fascinating.

There is so much darkness in this book. The message seems to be that people are capable of huge amounts of evil, that even the strongest-seeming friendships can turn out to be worthless, that people are selfish and greedy and morally bankrupt, that dignity is an illusion – I found it quite desperate in tone. But that wasn’t my objection as such. It was more that with so many characters, I couldn’t get inside the book – I felt like I was just watching a sad show as a passive spectator. The White Tiger had me absolutely sucked in, whereas the people from the Vishram Society are already fading for me. I would still read more Adiga, but this story, with its unrelenting bleakness and lack of vivid characterisation, just wasn’t the one for me.

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The Little Stranger – creepy yet charming

The Little Stranger is set in rural post-war England, in Warwickshire to be exact. It centres around a sprawling Georgian stately home called Hundreds Hall, which has been home to the genteel Ayres family for over two hundred years. But when Dr. Faraday arrives at the Hall where his mother once worked as a servant to treat the present-day Ayres’ one remaining servant, Betty, he finds the house has gone into a sharp decline.

The charming and once very beautiful Mrs Ayres lives with her resoundingly plain daughter Caroline and her son Roderick, who was disfigured as an RAF pilot during the war. They exist in an odd kind of poverty, surrounded by the relics of the family’s previous splendour but huddled around a fire because they can’t afford to keep their electric generator going, closing up room after room until the house gets smaller and smaller.

Dr Faraday is enchanted by the house and its inhabitants and he is drawn into their world. Even Caroline starts to seem less plain to him. But the house is not the inanimate, quaint old place he first imagined and soon strange things start happening….

I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about reading this book for some reason but I was drawn in by Waters’ easy, fluid style from the very first page. There’s nothing pretentious about her prose, which I found refreshing, and she has an incredible knack for writing dialogue. Her characters always seem plausible and I thought she represented the effect the house had on Dr Faraday in a rather clever way.

Even when I was reading this book on the tube in twenty-minute bursts, I never lost my thread or forgot what was going on. There’s nothing fussy about Sarah Waters so there’s nothing that to get in the way of the surprisingly tender moments that are often to be found in this story of the old-fashioned British upper class.

Yes, the British class system and its idiosyncrasies are a central feature of this book. The tragically comic Ayres family can be seen living in dreadful conditions, despite their aristocracy. Like their crumbling house, they are relics from another age, scorned and derided by the rest of England. No one wants to see ‘their sort’ around any more, or so they think, which is true in many ways, and in many ways quite rightly so! Nevertheless, it’s awful to see their struggle on a personal level and it’s hard not to have sympathy for them, not to be charmed by them, just as Dr Faraday is.

Anyway, give The Little Stranger a try. It walks a strange tightrope between cosy and unsettling in a way that always keeps the narrative feeling fresh. I guarantee you that reading it will never feel like a chore.

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