AS SWEET AS HONEY
By Indira Ganesan
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages
Indira Ganesan’s “Sweet as Honey” could be said to be about marriage, but like Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” which supplies this novel’s epigraphs, it is also about love and families and, ultimately, about the passage of time and the ways we experience it.
These interlaced themes announce themselves dramatically on the first three pages. Surprisingly, 6-foot-tall Auntie Meterling is marrying “the littlest man she knew.” At 4-feet, 11-inches, Archer bears “a striking resemblance to the Monopoly man, with a full white moustache, and a round tummy.” He’s the English owner of a gin distillery located “on the island of Pi in the Bay of Bengal: a place as sweet as honey, where people lived decent lives.”
Some of Meterling’s older aunts are not so sure about the decency of Archer leading his bride into a waltz “because touch dancing was severely looked down upon.” But disapproval immediately turns to shock when Archer drops dead on the dance floor. His sister Susan, over from England, is convinced he’s been murdered for his money.
Archer is not the only one whose passing is described so briskly. Mina, the 10-year old who narrates these events, explains that Meterling’s parents are dead, so like Mina herself, she lives with their grandmother. So do her cousins Rasi, whose parents died on a hiking vacation, and Sanjay, whose mother died in childbirth. Mina’s parents are both alive, but they are off in the snows of America, getting their doctorates in astrophysics and organic chemistry.
Despite these losses, Mina, Sanjay and Rasi lead idyllic lives in their grandmother’s large house, which is always full of aunts and uncles and, it soon turns out, can expect a newcomer: Meterling is pregnant. That is not at all in accord with traditional Indian views. Nor is it entirely acceptable for widows to remarry — and especially not to remarry as quickly as Meterling does. But in Ms. Ganesan’s hands, breaches of convention and untimely deaths mingle with everything else that happens in the lives of Mina’s extended family to suggest the sheer variety and oddity of people and their experience.
At its most effective, Ms. Ganesan’s skill at mixing — or rather accepting — the bad with the good brings Meterling to life as the center of this tale. Her grief at Archer’s death is real and sharply in focus, yet readers understand why she remarries. Perhaps more surprisingly — and a testament to the author’s literary deftness — it’s clear that Meterling continues to love and mourn Archer, even while she also dearly loves her second husband. And because she loves both of them, Archer remains a presence in the novel, appearing to bemoan the loss of his life, and even to discuss his own reincarnation.
Mina’s services as narrator are essential to these effects. She adores Meterling but she is too young to share the attitudes and beliefs of the adult world. She accepts accidental pregnancy as an interesting slip-up; watches Meterling for signs that she is a “ghost or a saint or a witch” and has no trouble believing in Archer’s reappearances. Living the charmed life of a child in her favorite stories, she is comfortable with the things unseen that can play decisive roles in human lives. Because we see Meterling’s story from Mina’s point of view we see it as a romance in which the deaths darkening the early pages are swirled up and away into the sort of happy ending that seems inevitable on the sweet-as-honey isle of Pi.
The sweetness and lightness and romance of Pi are anchored by the long middle section of the novel describing Meterling’s life in London, where she lives with her second husband. She’s bewildered and homesick, and often desperately lonely even after the baby arrives. Again, Ms. Ganesan artfully manages contradictions, showing how Meterling can both like much of her life in England, yet find that living there opens a vein of patriotism that shines new glory on her island birthplace. Such grown-upness is less convincingly the work of Mina; it is more clearly an insight of the expatriate author.
Indeed, Ms. Ganesan is one of several female novelists from India who trace the trajectories of middle-class Indians as they move between their own country and America or Britain. (Others include Jumpha Lahiri and Sunetra Gupta). This experience gives the writer and her characters critical distance from both India and the West, and nurtures clear-sightedness and irony; nurtures, in fact, the novel of manners. The considerable appeal of “As Sweet as Honey” is that East and West, romance and novel, coexist so enticingly.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.