Sonia Faleiro’s The Girl, a book I’d briefly men­tioned in this post at Sepia Mutiny, is a melan­choly novel set in Goa about two men and The Girl they both loved. The book begins with the young woman’s sui­cide — yet another tragedy in cursed Azul — and the two men are “achingly curi­ous” to find out why. And when one of them stum­bles upon her jour­nal, they use it to recon­struct her life lead­ing up to the sui­cide — the death of an unhappy woman whose last big hope had vanished.

Just a few pages into the novel, and it is obvi­ous that it is as much about show­cas­ing the writ­ing as it is about the actual plot. The Girl is a care­fully crafted book: every sen­tence is metic­u­lously assem­bled from delib­er­ately cho­sen words, each page is filled with pre­cise para­graphs con­struced from metic­u­lously assem­bled sentences.

There is plenty of word­play, and large doses of descrip­tive detail. Noth­ing is too insignif­i­cant to be let off with­out a metaphor or two, rang­ing from the inven­tive to the cliched.

Thus we have the earth “encrust­ing the cas­ket like pas­try bub­bling into hard­ness,” a bar and its loca­tion as mis­matched as “veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and a Goan” and as “pro­foundly antipodean” as the “Rua’s many lit­tle old ladies and the one young lady who lived oppo­site Breto’s in a stone man­sion, and many years later flung her­self into the well in the cor­ner of her garden.”

It is also a book where shred­ded hills of coconut meat stand like “sen­tinels await­ing instruc­tion” and the bor­ing parish priest read for so long from the bible that “the cuckoo in the clock retired for the night” and so loudly that “a row of minia­ture Dutch houses slum­ber­ing on the edge of a small table trem­bled with the antic­i­pa­tion of their fall.” “Dewy golden hinged” win­dow­panes rock in the wind from their roots, “like but­ter­flies pinned to the wall.”

While the care taken with the writ­ing lends an eru­dite, suave feel to the book ( the classy pro­duc­tion helps too), it also robs it of all spon­tane­ity. Even the rare play­ful­ness has a planned feel to it — one can almost sense the author paus­ing for applause before mov­ing on to the next sen­tence. Per­haps that’s why The Girl comes off as ver­bose, a sur­pris­ing thing for a book this slim. Some things are best left to the reader’s imagination…

At the very begin­ning of the book, for exam­ple, Sonia tries hard — way too hard — to con­vince her audi­ence that there is some­thing sin­is­ter about Azul, the Goan vil­lage where the tale is set in. Azul, we are told, enjoys a well deserved rep­u­ta­tion as the Vil­lage of the Dead and the aver­age Azu­lian res­i­dent has come across an exces­sive amount of tragedy. So much mis­for­tune that the vil­lagers are now inure to death and sad­ness and have grown to expect it.

And she doesn’t flinch at men­tion­ing the fact over and over again — this sup­posed rep­u­ta­tion of the vil­lage — devot­ing almost an entire chap­ter to it. And like the kid who keeps telling us over and over again that he didn’t really tear the five rupee bill (I really didn’t daddy), we start doubt­ing the author, and an inci­den­tal detail that should’ve added a bit of intrigue to the nar­ra­tive ends up cre­at­ing a vague uneasi­ness in the minds of the reader about the whole story.

There is a vil­lage by the sea, a sea so blue they named the vil­lage Azul, the Por­tugese word for blue. But most peo­ple who have heard of or have passed through this for­got­ten clasp of Goa, know it not because of its unusual name but for its very real rep­u­ta­tion as the Vil­lage of the Dead.The vil­lage is but a pin­prick upon a map, so small and, as many believe, so potently cursed, that vis­i­tors who thronged to our part of the world after the inci­dents which I am now about to recount came to light, were unable, except per­haps by mis­take, to stum­ble upon us.

***

In the house beside mine live Maria Coutinho and her three unwed daugh­ters. Six months ago, Thomas Coutinho sunk to the bot­tom of the sea after his stom­ach cramped up dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly sharp move­ment of the breast­stroke. Now Maria, Rosy, Daisy and Petu­nia feel like guests in their own home, unsure of the kitchen entrance or the exit door. They sit uneasily in their gar­den, sewing, drink­ing tea, weep­ing sound­less tears to fill the empty space left behind by a beloved hus­band and father. I have another neigh­bour, a young man of inde­ter­mi­nate age. Per­haps a writer expect­ing to be dis­cov­ered. a painter search­ing for a muse. Most likely he was once a cheery pro­fes­sional, eager for fame, des­per­ate for a drink, who, hav­ing lost his way to some­place impor­tant, found him­self in Azul and was imme­di­ately drained of all strength, per­haps even life, to turn back and go home. This is the effect we have on outsiders.

***

Yet I take mea­ger solace in the fact that the entire vil­lage shares my fate. That is why we are of the Dead, per­pet­u­ally in grief for losses real and imag­ined. There is not one in Azul who has not been denied a beloved too young, too soon. A wife whose hus­band drowned at sea, a brother who stum­bled across an unlit path after too many glasses of arrack. A child born with an eye scooped out, another whose butter-soft skull lolls like a rub­ber ball on the dunes. A young girl, newly engaged, who lost her fianc� to a motor­cy­cle acci­dent that left the air thick with the smell of burn­ing rub­ber and iron. A mid­night stab­bing at Happy Joe’s bar. And, of course, sui­cides. These are the sort of sto­ries shared by the vil­lagers at coun­cil meetings.

***

Soon enough, we realised that nobody under­stands death like the Vil­lage of the Dead, and no one expects to encounter it more. I sup­pose when you have noth­ing left to lose, you are finally freed of the ter­ror of los­ing it.

Behind the veneer of beau­ti­ful writ­ing and classy pro­duc­tion, the story The Girl tells is noth­ing new. One girl, two men, unre­quited love. The book is almost for­mu­laic: A lit­tle bit of back­ground about the girl — her fam­ily (dys­func­tional), her life oth­er­wise (lonely, bor­ing). One of the men (sweet, lov­able, timid). The other man (mys­te­ri­ous, trav­eler). Even though the Girl’s char­ac­ter is beau­ti­fully done — the quiet suf­fer­ing, the hes­i­tant hope­ful­ness, and later, dig­nity when all hope fades — the rest of the peo­ple in the book veer dan­ger­ously close to being caricatures.

Per­haps a Mar­quez could’ve worked some over-the-top magic with this mix, but in the hands of this tal­ented new­bie with a gift for words, the book is just pass­able. One could be harsh and call this stan­dard issue Bol­ly­wood, where you get great cam­er­a­work, flaw­less skin, beau­ti­ful cos­tumes, plenty of cleav­age, awe­some locales and noth­ing else. One could, but that wouldn’t be fair. For all its flaws, The Girl is a pleas­ant read, and prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter Indian books this year.

Com­par­isons can be odi­ous, but I can’t help men­tion­ing Sid­dhartha Chowdhury’s Patna Rough­cut in this con­text. On a super­fi­cial level, the sim­i­lar­i­ties are obvi­ous. A short novel, a new author, a small town set­ting, released around the same time. The sim­i­lar­i­ties end there though. Chowdhury’s unadorned prose is so much more believ­able, a qual­ity that Sonia’s suave prose some­how lacks — her flow­ery prose is the book’s biggest strength, and its biggest weakness.