Shortlisted for Book of the Month
I first read Kurinji Flowers, by Clare Flynn, a couple of years ago, and hugely enjoyed it. This time around, I was a little anxious to see if it would retain its appeal. Happily it did, and moreover new features emerged from its pages with the re-read.
The story straddles much of the twentieth century, and in particular, much of the turbulent history of India through the final years of British Empire and the early years of independence and self-rule. But while these great events are constantly in the background, our focus is firmly on the lives of individuals. We first meet Ginny, the main character, as a rather spoiled and self-absorbed young teenager in London. She moves to southern India and marries in haste, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment and disgrace. The book ends with her in middle age, having largely come to terms with the circumstances of her life, and found resolution for many of her hurts and pains.
But Clare picks out highlights from Ginny's life, and skips over spans of intervening time, so we are drawn into something which is not a diary. Instead, the ways in which these key moments illuminate people's lives helps us to enter into their diverse cultures. I came away with a keen sense of how human life so easily slips into mundane and empty habit, whether through force of circumstance, or through fear and anxiety. We are given glimpses into the emotional life of each of the key players - some more guarded and secretive than others - and witness the long-lasting sorrow of men and women bound up in habits and attitudes that divide them from one another. People here are occasionally selfish and cruel, but, more often, and more destructively, are simply uncaring, unable to empathise with each other.
Ginny herself experiences only brief moments of joy in an otherwise barren life. The waste of human potential - hers and that of so many others - is sobering. This waste is seen in Ginny's own life, in the expatriate colonial culture she is part of and yet despises, and indeed in much of the interaction between Britain and India through these years. Occasionally individuals do succeed in lighting up the narrative of the lives around them, but all too fleetingly.
Something I picked up very strongly this time was a recurrent theme of people (including Ginny herself) making snap judgements about others on first encounter. These judgements are almost always wrong, but the process of realising and correcting these first impressions is slow and difficult.
The kurinji flowers of the title bloom in an extraordinary way only every twelve years, covering the mountain sides of Kerala in a short but splendid spectacle. This natural phenomenon is mirrored by the rarity of times of happiness and fulfilment in the protagonists' lives, and it is easy to want so much more for the characters than they actually receive.
I very much enjoyed rediscovering Kurinji Flowers. If I had a criticism, it would be that the ending feels a bit rushed. The realisations and adjustments that Ginny is forced into are altogether larger than those she has faced before, yet comparatively little narrative space is given to them. I would have preferred a bit more exposition here. That said, it remains a fine book which will, I am sure, appeal to those who appreciate stories of personal struggles in relationships, where the characters do not find easy answers to the difficulties of life.
© Richard Abbott
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