Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

a fine balance

A Fine Balance
by Rohinton Mistry

Wow. This book was truly a masterpiece. It is now officially on my favorite book list.

Mistry is Indian American and his book is set in India. It follows a number of characters and their families through a couple of generations, painting a picture of life in India in the city and in the country, in low and high caste, from the perspective of a man and that of a woman. The main characters are a widowed woman named Dinah that attempts to open her own tailoring business in order to keep her apartment and independent life. She hires two tailors who have come to the city looking for work, Ishvar and his nephew, Omprakash. She also takes on a boarder, a student from a well-off family in the mountains named Manek.

The story is brilliant and the characters are gripping. It's a long book, so by two-thirds of the way through the book I was completely wrapped up in Ishvar and Omprakash's story. I felt their hopelessness as they were swept out of the slums into the brick-making factory. I rejoiced as they finally settled into Dinah's flat and seemed to create a patch-work family that took joy in their strange lives. I smelled the stench of the train-track bathroom and worried about the local beggars with them. That's the power of the story.

Thing is, I hate this book for getting me so wrapped up into it, because I SO wanted it to end well. It so effectively portrays the tragedy of life and the systemic injustice in Indira Gandi's India. I was so content when the book seemed to be wrapping up the story to show that despite the madness, they could create simple life filled with love for each other and it would all be worth it - a grand tapestry with tragedy and triumph.

However, that's not the way it ends. Mistry rips the beauty apart and Ishvar, Om, Dinah and Manek are all taken up in things that just seem SO unjust. I got so angry about it that I found myself telling the whole story to Isaac and he also grasped the horror of it all. I just couldn't separate myself from their story and think about it objectively, which really shows the power of the book.

So - I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It's a bit like reading an old Dickens novel, except quite a bit easier to read. You follow quirky characters that all end up interconnected, and much of it is dark and sorrowful despite the humor of the writing. It's tough for me to reconcile myself to the anti-fairy-tale ending, but at the same time Mistry IS portraying injustice, and most of the time injustice isn't ever reconciled.

5/5 stars from me.


  1. thanks for the review, this book has been on my list for sometime, but I haven't gotten around to reading it. I would recommend two Indian films (which I've reviewed a while ago): Earth and Water

  2. I've had this book for years, but I haven't gotten to dig in to it yet. Seems right up my alley. I put it at the front of my "to read" shelf.

  3. Be prepared to get mad, Ian! :)