Assembling a World from Fragments

Em and the Big Hoom: A Novel, by Jerry Pinto, (Penguin Books), 224 pages

Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, is utterly original, both striking and unnerving, unlike anything I’ve read before. While it’s set in India, this novel transcends location. Em and the Big Hoom are the mother and father of the novel’s narrator, a young man of uncertain age. This novel offers the narrator’s attempt to make sense of his parents’ lives, particularly of their life together. Em is bipolar, a sparkling, unconventional wit between episodes, but prone to frantic, often obscene highs and debilitating (and that word is rather an understatement) lows. The Big Hoom seems rather a conventional man, but one who has lived for years with this whirlwind at the center of his life, balancing work with the demands of her care.

I said above that I found this novel unnerving, and that’s the characteristic that has most stuck with me. With few social boundaries and a penchant for writing—and for hoarding these writings: journals, letters, ephemera of all sorts—Em is an open book. That is, if one can call “open” a book that jumps wildly in mood and tone, following a series of disorienting segues from one topic to the next. The story as narrated seems like a randomly shuffled series of photographs: vivid, featuring the same cast of characters, but in no clear sequence. She moves suddenly into highly sexualized conversations with her children, asks them to kill her, has a knack for finding just the line or look that will being the sharpest response—but she’s always willing to make tea, to keep company, to try to connect.

My heart ached for the narrator, perpetually trying to make sense of an adult world that is, in many ways, senseless. What is always present, though, is family loyalty. Alongside anger, inconvenience, dread, and fear lives love, prickly love, but love nonetheless (which might sound maudlin, but there is nothing whatsoever maudlin about this novel and its characters).

This is a book to read when you aren’t looking for narrative so much as time spent within the minds of others. It will have you viewing the world through multiple lenses. Like the narrator you will have to rethink conversations and place moments in juxtaposition with one another. Even with this effort, you, like he, will be left with a frustratingly incomplete picture. However that incomplete picture is compelling, drawing the reading into its whirl of brilliance and darkness. Read this novel when you want questions, not answers, when you prefer confusion to tidy half-truths. You’ll be richly rewarded.

You’ll be able to find Em and the Big Hoom in bookstores beginning June 24.

While I received a free electronic ARC of this book for review purposes, I don’t believe that has in any way influenced my response to it.

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