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Book review: Kashmira Sheth’s KEEPING CORNER

25 Apr

Keeping CornerSo one of the books I read in my time away from this blog was Kashmira Sheth‘s Keeping Corner. TBH, this review is one of the things you have to thank for me dusting this blog off at all; when Amy wrote about Sold over at The YA Subscription it was the first thing I thought of, and since, when I recommended it to her, she said sadly that she didn’t think she’d be able to read it anytime soon, I started thinking, well, maybe I should talk about it myself.

The story: It’s 1918, and twelve-year-old Leela lives in a small village in Gujarat. She was betrothed at two and married at nine, and the day is approaching when she’ll leave her parents’ home and go to live with her husband and his family. She’s a sweet, spoiled girl who’s clever but doesn’t really care that much about school—why should she, when after she leaves home she’ll be done with it? Then her husband dies, and she must spend the following year keeping corner—her fine clothes, her beloved jewelry, her long, beautiful hair—everything she defined herself by is taken away from her, and she’s confined to her home. With the help of her family and her teacher, Leela makes it through the year, and it’s while she’s unable to leave her home that she realizes just how big the world around her is.

My thoughts: Guys, quite simply, I love this book. I really, really love it. Keeping Corner is a quick read for two reasons, first because it really isn’t all that long (around 55,000 words) and second because Sheth’s style is so smooth, Leela’s voice so engaging, that it’s difficult not to tear through it. This book has basically everything I love, starting with rich sensory detail and a genuinely likable narrator.

This is, at its heart, a story of trauma—trauma, and surviving it, and recovering from it. In the space of a moment, Leela’s whole life is taken from her. The lives of her entire family are rocked to the foundations—emotionally, of course; it’s obvious that Leela’s grief and misery are deeply upsetting to them, but also practically, too: because widowed women of the Brahman caste can’t remarry, Leela will, it’s assumed, be in their home for the rest of their lives. This is not the story of Leela’s world being shattered, and how she puts the pieces back together—this is the story of how her world is swept away, and what she tries to build in its place.

Also stunning is the complexity of the political questions raised in such a short book, and how deftly those questions are addressed. Leela loves her family dearly, and they her—that’s never even in question. But she doesn’t think what’s happening to her is fair. That the real complexities and, heck, hypocrisies of people are dealt with—how can her father support Gandhi’s blossoming civil disobedience movement, yet ignore his writings on the need for gender equality, particularly with regard to widows?—that Leela can disagree without ever thinking this is an easy matter or that her parents are just backwards, is what makes this book wonderful for me where stories of backwards brown people who need enlightenment (usually in the form of Western ideas and/or white Western saviors) make me deeply uncomfortable.

Which brings me to another point, about my favorite kind of historical fiction. The Big Events—World War I, the birth of Gandhi’s independence movement—absolutely affect Leela, her town, her family, and her friends, but her story isn’t a reiteration of what I could get by reading a non-fiction book or an encyclopedia article about the subject. Gandhi is a presence and a driving force in the story, but there’s no cameo (which is a plus for me; I’m not generally a fan of Famous Person Cameos anyway). By his physical absence, his work becomes all the more powerful a force. It’s sort of the ultimate in showing, not telling: Sheth must show us how Gandhi’s work is changing Leela’s world, rather than having him show up and talk about it.

As a trigger warning, the book contains an attempted rape; it doesn’t feel, to me, in the least gratuitous or exploitative and serves to underline the injustices of the patriarchal system that Leela lives in; but mileage may vary and it’s fairly upsetting, particularly the aftermath, when Leela realizes that her attacker was someone she’s known her entire life. Apart from that, my only warning is to be careful you don’t make the mistake I did, of taking it with me to read on my commute. NBD FELLOW TRAVELERS NBD IT’S JUST RAINING ON MY FACE. The only other incidents where I’ve had such a strong emotional reaction to a work in such a short amount of time:

  • Springsteen concerts
  • every time I rewatch the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” and basically flood my apartment with my tears

Thank goodness it’s the height of allergy season here in D.C., is all I’m saying.

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