“Wasafiri” Review

Review of A House Called Askival in WASAFIRI – A Journal Of International Contemporary Writing, Issue 83 Summer 2015

A House Called Askival is a novel of epic proportions: wide span of time, dramatic locations, expansive emotions and actions, varied characters, big themes like history, politics and religion, and narrative shifts between temporal and spatial frames which compel the reader to forge links and discover realities and truths of universal dimensions. Though A House Called Askival is Merryn Glover’s first foray into the novel genre, she is already a well-established, award-winning author. Given Glover’s own upbringing as a child of missionary parents in India and her exposure to diverse cultures, her novel resonates with deeply-felt emotions and lived experiences.

The story is set across India’s recent history from the Partition to the assassination of Indira Ghandhi and revolves around an American missionary family, the Connors, who live and work in the remote hill station of Mussoorie in the northern state of Uttarakhand. The novel begins with the return of Ruth Connor to Mussoorie after a long absence to spend time with her dying father James. Both James and Ruth are the main narrators and as they reflect on past events, their individual tales intertwine and pour light on the lives of the Connor family who served in India during a tumultuous time. When we are first introduced to Ruth, she is carrying a burden of shame and guilt and these feelings seem to be tied to Askival, the family home: ‘She had to see the house, before she lost all courage.’ Ruth is horrified at its decay house but she has to come to terms with what has transpired there just as her father, also, in his own recounting and memories, makes peace with his past lived out in this house. Though James and Ruth seem strong-willed and stubborn on the outside, they are people who are earnestly seeking answers and truths.

Glover has a fine eye for setting and scene (a nod to her playwriting career) and her evocations of Askival are haunting; its presence so pervasive in the narrative. The author’s descriptions allude to the commonplace but yet so vital notion that home is not only a material dwelling but also an affective space shaped by emotions and feelings of belonging. Askival is in such a decrepit state when Ruth first sets eyes on it, the house carries visible traces of the passing of time:

‘The veranda gaped, splintered beams jutting from the plaster like broken teeth, windows staring out at the gloom, empty of glass and blind … The walls were bloated and breaking, stone bricks fallen onto the veranda … the stench was like a blow.’

As Ruth goes through a journey of salvaging a sense of self that she can accept, a similar process of reclamation is acted out on Askival and Ruth single-handedly tries to restore her old home. Apart from the Connor home, Glover flawlessly captures the sounds, sights, tastes and smells of the hill town Mussoorie, whose name is often attributed to a derivation of mansoor, a shrub indigenous to the area. The natural, mysterious beauty of the town forms the dramatic backdrop against which the family saga unfolds.

The stories of Ruth and James are framed by the relationships between the missionaries and the native Indians. Here the narrative moves away, whenever it can, from the usual binaries of self-other which inform such relationships and we witness instead friendships and genuine attempts at understanding and acceptance. We are introduced to an array of Indians of different faiths, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims, and we are made aware of the pressing issues which often arise when different communities live in close proximity. The text depicts the startling, senseless violence which erupts when ethnicities and religions are in conflict. There are many conversations between the characters, on the issue of religion especially, as they explore ways in which they could live together in unity. India has achieved Independence but, paradoxically, freedom has become even more elusive. In the midst of the crowd of characters in the novel stands the shinning figure of Iqbal, a man whose presence from the very start bewilders Ruth, an ‘incongruous man’ and whose somber reflections and funny quips hold such gems of wisdom. Indeed it would be easy to see Iqbal as a mouthpiece for the author, a symbol of forgiveness and love, but it is to the author’s credit that he comes across as a fully-fleshed-out character, enigmatic, chaotic, lovable, at once simple and wise.

In this book, a blend of family epic and historical fiction, the private narrative is always seen to imbricate on the public narrative, asserting the importance of understanding and, consequently, accepting diversity. This, the novel seems to says, comes in the meeting of varied beliefs and ideas. In the light of what is happening on the world stage today, A House Called Askival is a book which demands our engagement.

Dr Carol Leon
The Department of English
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
The University of Malaya
50603 Kuala Lumpur