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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Empty Space

Geetanjali Shree

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To purchase The Empty Space

Title: The Empty Space
Author: Geetanjali Shree
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 249 pages
Original in: Hindi
Availability: The Empty Space - US
The Empty Space - UK
The Empty Space - Canada
The Empty Space - India
खाली जगह - India
  • Hindi title: खाली जगह
  • Translated by Nivedita Menon
  • With Q & As with the author and the translator

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly effective terrorist-attack-aftermath tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Sunday Guardian . 23/9/2012 Jai Arjun Singh
The Telegraph . 25/11/2011 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Empty Space [...] gives us the consequences of that destructive impulse, in the form of a family who live in permanent stasis and a young boy who can never be a person in his own right" - Jai Arjun Singh, The Sunday Guardian

  • "In spite of some poignant moments the story is soaked in a cloying sense of grief, too heavy for the vapoury prose to bear." - The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The bulk of The Empty Space is narrated by the sole survivor of a terrorist bombing of a university cafe which left only:

Bits and pieces of nineteen people and one three-year-old bit
       Among the victims was an eighteen-year-old boy who was just starting his studies at the prestigious institution, far from home. The family initially holds out hope that he wasn't at the cafe when the explosion took place, but it soon becomes clear that he must have been. They travel to the site, and the mother identifies the pieces; she knows it's her son.
       The toddler, who amazingly survived in a small empty space in the cafe, remains unidentified and unclaimed, and Ma, the mother of the dead eighteen-year-old, wants him. The authorities are happy enough to hand him over -- which might not be very plausible, but is the leap necessary to allow for the scenario Shree's novel turns on, the living three-year-old now raised as a stand-in substitute for the dead eighteen-year-old by a Ma and Father as they awkwardly try to deal with the death of their child. It's not quite death-and-rebirth, but close.
       The toddler is traumatized too, and for a long time won't speak -- but his account also covers those years and the fears and feelings, and misunderstandings around him, that he can't articulate. He finds himself struggling with his own identity, as his adopted parents inevitably see their dead son in and through him; he re-places the dead boy -- living in his room, wearing his clothes, sharing his birthday (since they don't know his actual date of birth) -- but can never bring back what was lost.
       The parents struggle with their loss too, with Father, for example, embracing the religion and community ties that he had abandoned.
       And a faint echo in the book remains the voice of the lost son, speaking from the dead, as it were.
       Eventually, the narrator reaches the age the boy was when he died -- and wants to further follow in his footsteps, to attend the university the boy was supposed to study at. And a figure from the boy's past also becomes part of the family's life, bringing them back to that inescapable, life-changing blast again.
       Told in fairly short chapters -- 87, over the book's 240 pages -- the writing is heavily stylized, even incantatory. It is effective, using repetition to convey the shell-shocked sense of the characters overwhelmed by a situation that can't easily be put in words (hence also the narrator's inability, and unwillingness, to speak for so long), and reflects the narrator's uneasy position, so much of his identity seen through others' eyes, who see another in him as well.
       The 'empty space' -- filled, or to be filled -- of the title is frequently returned to, in a variety of contexts, including how those closest to him regard him:
Ma looking at me like she can see his presence in me, Father looking at me like he can see his absence in me
       There's an inescapable circularity here, in the small as well as in its totality:
     I chase the story, the story chases me, time chases its characters, they chase time, and behind it all is the bomb, and also ahead.
       Shree keeps much vague on purpose. Her concern isn't with specifics, and it doesn't matter why the bomb was placed in the cafe or what traditions Father falls back on, or even the names of people or places. In speaking in generalities the narrative does occasionally veer to the vapid, but overall Shree handles this quite well, and there are larger observations that resound quite powerfully:
     We have mixed up everything. Some eras do that. Knowledge, meditation, generations, conventions, intelligence, essences.
       In the Q & A with the novel's translator included in the book Nivedita Menon notes the difficulty of certain passages and mentions:
when she plays on a Hindi literate public's familiarity with certain poets, and cites just one line say, of Faiz. The Hindi reader tunes in to the whole verse behind that one line, while in English it ends up being just a line of what sounds like prose.
       Even in translation, the novel reverberates with language and reference, and even if the English reader misses some of that, the general feel of it remains. While it is far from straightforward realist fiction, The Empty Space nevertheless remains solidly and clearly grounded in the familiar (even if it is not always readily identifiable).
       The Empty Space is a largely successful exercise in formal experimentation, and a quite moving story of the aftermaths of a horrible event.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 December 2016

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The Empty Space: Reviews: Other books by Geetanjali Shree under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Hindi-writing Indian author Geetanjali Shree (गीतांजलि श्री) was born in 1957.

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