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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Leela's Book

Alice Albinia

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To purchase Leela's Book

Title: Leela's Book
Author: Alice Albinia
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 422 pages
Availability: Leela's Book - US
Leela's Book - UK
Leela's Book - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sputters a bit, but on the whole an entertainingly convoluted family tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 27/5/2011 Ángel Gurría-Quintana
The Guardian . 1/7/2011 Hirsh Sawhney
India Times . 28/5/2011 Kishwar Desai
Outlook India . 20/6/2011 Manjula Padmanabhan

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a bold and delightful novel, executed with energy and flair. (...) Albinia has pulled off the remarkable trick of melding a story about modern family ties with a timeless tale about gods and avatars. Leela's Book is as much a meditation on tensions between brothers and sisters, or between parents and their children, as it is a rumination on the nature of storytelling. For a novel so thick in plot, and so lush with details of Indian life, it reads effortlessly. The result is magnificent." - Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "Despite its unevenness, Leela's Book is a stimulating novel in which Albinia skilfully manages an intricate plot and an enormous, diverse cast of characters. Her immense historical acumen and sophisticated sense of culture have enabled her to craft a powerful tale about a place that isn't exactly home turf." - Hirsh Sawhney, The Guardian

  • "It is a hugely imaginative concept and for most of this clever and complicated novel, it works. However, the only problem is that after some time, Ganesh (or Albinia, whom I hope I can assume is actually writing this book) begins to display B.R. Chopra-like tendencies." - Kishwar Desai, India Times

  • "Her second book is a novel set in India and has the hallmarks of what I would call the Indian Wedding Rock Opera genre. Surprise ingredients in the otherwise familiar mix of doomed lovers, unlikely couplings and multi-generational conflict are DNA research, slum-dwellers and a certain elephant-headed god. (...) While I was impressed by the ease with which this English writer simulated the boneless, florid prose of the Ind-lit crowd, I had to wonder: is this really an achievement ? Itís such an irony-proof style and it slips so easily from light parody into deep kitsch that itís hard to be sure the author is in control of her material." - Manjula Padmanabhan, Outlook India

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:

       Leela's Book is a modern take on an ancient tale -- whose ancient teller, Ganesh, the elephant-headed scribe who penned the Mahabharata, resurfaces here, both as narrator and also eventually somewhat more directly in human form as well. History, and stories repeat themselves, and when Ganesh slipped a beautiful creation named Leela into this Mahabharata-story that Vyasa was dictating to him he had no idea what he had unleashed, as the character and her various later incarnations took on some prominent roles -- inevitably twinned with another girl, Meera. So too in the present era, where Leela was the adopted sister of Meera, who went on to marry the Sanskrit scholar Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi -- while Leela married Hariprasad Sharma and moved to New York, never to see Meera -- who died relatively young -- again.
       The story is set in motion as the modern Vyasa's son, Ashwin, is set to marry Hari Sharma's niece, Sunita -- which finally is a big enough event for Hari to convince Leela to accompany him back to India, which she hasn't visited for some two decades. Hari knows nothing of her connection to Vyasa's family, and while he has been very successful in America, the couple has also remained childless.
       Hari's brother -- Sunita's father --is Shiva Prasad Sharma, a staunch Hindu nationalist and true ideologue (which has prevented him enjoying the success as a politician and national leader he had always hoped for) -- whose views are at odds with the scholar Vyasa's. His eldest daughter, Urvashi, committed the capital sin of marrying a Muslim -- leading him to consider her a persona non grata; she is also now a neighbor of Vyasa's. Shiva also has a son, Ram, whom Hari is grooming to take over the family business. Ashwin's twin sister is the very free-spirited Bharati, who is studying in London but comes to Delhi for the wedding.
       Shiva has high hopes from the union of these two families. For one, he believes that he can then compel Vyasa to stop spreading what he considers the scholar's anti-Hindu theories. And then there's future son-in-law Ash's work as a geneticist -- which he hopes will help prove his cockamamie theories about the origins of the pure Aryan race. Needless to say, Shiva will be disappointed by how things turn out .....
       There are quite a few family secrets strewn along the way, from Ram and Ashwin's surprising connection, to the mother of all secrets that Leela carries with her, explaining what came between her and Meera. From Meera's poems -- which Bharati is writing about -- and especially a revealing new one that suddenly surfaces, to a variety of secondary characters, including the help, a journalist (and former childhood friend of Ashwin and Bharati), one of Bharati's classmates at university (whose mother spent a few years in India ...), and even a literary agent, Leela's Book is crowded with characters, secrets, connections, and surprises. But since it is anchored deep in the original myth, it slowly unweaves its elaborate story exactly as it must.
       Albinia hoists a great deal here, and it's hard to balance it all; secondary story-lines fizzle out some, and convenient disappearances -- from the temporary (a character fainting) to the more lasting -- are relied on too often. Leela holds a bit too much in, and Bharati lets a bit too much loose, and there are simply too many characters for Albinia to properly concentrate on. Nevertheless, it's all quite good fun. The Mahabharata-connection, and the differing opinions on myth as well as racial and religious purity make for both interesting and entertaining twists in the story, and if Albinia lays it on a bit thick, for the most part it works surprisingly well. Many of the characters are very well-drawn, too, from successful Hari who still doesn't quite understand his wife, to exiled Urvashi, and even some of the secondary characters who aren't family. Ganesh is not too intrusive -- indeed, he keeps himself in the background most of the time, which makes it all the more amusing when he does find himself mixing with the characters.
       There are probably a few too many layers here, and the novel does sputter to its resolution, little of which is surprising by that point, but it's all really quite enjoyable. If it can't quite live up to Albinia's grand plan that plan is nevertheless completely evident, which is almost good enough, and many of the ideas and (set-)pieces are very good (if often not adequately seen through). It's flawed, in other words, but still quite winning, and a worthwhile read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 February 2012

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Leela's Book: Reviews: Alice Albinia: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of books from and about India

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About the Author:

       British author Alice Albinia was born in 1976.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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