I wrote a fairly thorough summary of the first half of this book in my Yarn Along post on Wednesday, and you can read it here if you missed it. This is a short epistolary novel that manages to be both quick-paced and contemplative. I suppose its protagonist is Oliver – the young British man preparing to take his final vows as a Hindu monk at a monastery in India – since his diary entries comprise about half the book, but really this is not a book that tracks the growth and change of a protagonist as a result of the plot in the traditional sense. The suspense and tension in this novel are a function of the reader trying to figure out when to believe these characters (i.e. Oliver and his brother Patrick) and when to assume that they are lying.
Like many siblings, Oliver and Patrick are guarded around each other, protective of their own secrets. At the same time, each is convinced that he can read the other like a book. Patrick’s big, capital-S secret is the fact that he’s gay (though Isherwood hints that Oliver knows this). His wife Penny is at home in London with their children, and Patrick has just spent time in LA, where he is involved in adapting a book published by his company into a movie, and connected with a young man named Tom. Tom took Patrick on a long walk to a place by the ocean, where they walked through a tunnel in the rock and then made love on the other side. Then, before Patrick leaves for India, Tom gives Patrick an erotic novel to read on the plane – and the novel contains a scene exactly like the one Tom initiated with Patrick on their hike. Patrick is titillated by this discovery – by the thought of Tom orchestrating a tryst exactly like the one in the book – but he is also a little alarmed that an encounter he thought was spontaneous was actually carefully planned and scripted. This incident plays a relatively small role in the plot, but it connects perfectly with many of the thematic elements of the novel: secrets and lies, originality and convention, male friendships, and the idea of mentors and followers, gurus and disciples, and the many ways in which life (and maybe especially male life?) is a constant push and pull, a struggle for balance and autonomy.
Oliver’s journal seems likely to contain his unscripted, honest thoughts – in the same way that a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play can generally be trusted – but I don’t trust its revelations very much. Oliver assigns himself the task of writing the journal as a spiritual exercise, and to me there is usually some ego tied up in any task described as a “spiritual exercise.” I think Oliver wants to be honest in his journal, and he does express some anger at his brother that seems perfectly genuine, but overall, Oliver – the apparent protagonist – is the most inscrutable character in the novel for me. I never really get a sense of how genuine his spirituality is. In some ways, I wish one of the swamis kept a journal too, so we could see how Oliver is perceived by the religious authorities (we do know from Oliver himself, incidentally, that the swamis treat Oliver differently from the other initiates – offering him a private room with a bed instead of a mat on the floor in a shared room, etc. – and that Oliver declines this special treatment whenever possible) – but we never do. He’s an enigma. We know that Oliver has a case of sibling rivalry, and we can speculate from the total lack of references to Oliver and Patrick’s father that Patrick was likely Oliver’s primary role male role model when he was growing up. We also learn that Patrick’s wife Penny was originally Oliver’s girlfriend, and while there is no doubt that this incident – however it took place – complicated the relationship between the brothers, even this fact is rarely mentioned.
Patrick writes long letters to three people. His letters to his mother are designed to ease her anxieties about Oliver. He describes the beauty of the monastery (and then quickly describes its squalor and foul smell to his wife) and waxes philosophical about what it means to be a British man at large in a former colony – thereby introducing into the reader’s mind ideas about colonial and postcolonial relations between Britain and India, including the idea that a colonial relationship is similar to a parental one, and that India is the young adult who has recently thrown off the yoke and now seeks to relate to its parent country as an equal. His letters to Penny – and Oliver’s journal entries describing his conversations with Patrick – indicate that he worries about Oliver’s health and finds his life in the monastery a bit ridiculous, but to his mother Patrick praises the food at the monastery and compliments Oliver’s seriousness as a monk.
Patrick’s letters to Penny feel honest to me, although of course they never mention Tom. To her, he mocks Oliver openly and complains about his mother’s insistence that he report in on how Oliver is doing. He complains about India itself and about almost everything his brother does – although he does seem to genuinely like many of the other monks, who welcome him at their meals and other group events. In spite of the fact that he is cheating on Penny with Tom (and we’re never told whether he has had other lovers before Tom), he seems to have a deep affection for her. He writes to her as a peer.
In his letters to Tom, Patrick gushes like an adolescent about how hard it is to survive without Tom, about his deep, deep lust, etc. Tom turns the tables on Patrick, though, when he calls the monastery late at night and insists on speaking to him. The monks misunderstand and call Oliver to the phone, so Oliver learns about his brother’s affair when Tom mistakes him for Patrick and begins speaking before Oliver can correct him. After the mistake is cleared up and Patrick has, with great embarrassment, ended the conversation and gone back to bed, Patrick writes a letter telling Tom that their relationship is over. He begs Tom to destroy his letters and never tell Penny what has happened – we never learn if Tom obeys, but I suspect that we’re supposed to assume that Patrick’s entanglement with Tom is far from over.
Confused yet? This novel is full of ambiguities and half-truths and secrets, as characters shift back and forth between a variety of personae dictated by whom they are with. While I’m sure it all sounds a little convoluted when I summarize it, I had no trouble keeping track of facts when I was reading the book. This is one of those novels that feels like real life – even if you’ve never been to a Hindu monastery in Calcutta – because its characters are so fully developed and compelling.
As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking of it as a more extended version of Tobias Wolff’s “The Rich Brother” – and, of course, there are any number of stories and novels and films out there that explore the relationships between brothers. Wolff’s story makes several direct allusions to the story about Cain and Abel, and even though this novel does not do so on the surface, this novel is certainly preoccupied with the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ and also with any number of follow-up questions: ‘How do I feel about being my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Does my being my brother’s keeper mean that my brother is not free – does it mean, in fact, that I am not free?’ ‘If my brother rejects my help, does my responsibility to him end, or not?’ When Oliver takes his final vows as a monk, a process that involves reciting funeral prayers for one’s parents and siblings, he is essentially inducted into a new family – a family that he has chosen. But what does this mean for Patrick?
This novel asks more questions than it answers – but it is a quick, compelling read and I recommend it highly. This novel is an example of why good-quality used books stores are so important: Isherwood’s books are not widely available in the U.S., and this one – like his others, I’m sure – deserves to be discovered and read.