I shouldn’t take book recommendations from authors that I don’t really know, but that is the unfortunate mistake I made with this one. We all live and learn, don’t we?
In his enjoyable travelogue, The Wet and the Dry, Lawrence Osborne praised Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters, as a “remarkable” and “beautiful” book. This piqued my interest because Osborne’s book offered an informative and unique perspective on cultures unfamiliar to this reader. Where else could I better expand my horizon than to turn to one of the author’s muses? My interest in Bapsi Sidhwa was further piqued by the reviews posted on goodreads filled with praise, heralding the humor and suspense of this “masterpiece” that tells the tale of the Parsee people with “brutal honesty.” So, while expecting a masterpiece, upon finishing The Crow Eaters, I look around in disappointment and only find an uninspiring novel usurping the crown.
This wasn’t a terrible book, but it just wasn’t that funny or moving or suspenseful as it is billed to be. The book does have the merit of offering a glimpse into the small and little discussed culture of the Parsee (or Parsi, depending on the spelling) people living in the Pakistani region of British India during between 1901 and 1940. Always a sucker to broaden my cultural perspectives, I found the narrative interjections about the history, culture, and religious beliefs of the Parsee people to be enjoyably enlightening. Before this book I knew nothing of the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, a polytheistic religion with monotheistic undertones that largely influenced the later Judeo-Christian and Gnostic religions. Nor did I have any idea how these ancient Iranians ended up in India. Through the dialogue shared by the characters within the story, The Crow Eaters effectively reveals the values of a unique and ancient culture that has prevailed as a minority among other more dominant cultures.
The faults that detracted my interest in this book lie not in cultural back story, but more simply in my annoyance at the bland narrative style employed by the author. Not once was I motivated to underline a passage as particularly enlightening or quotable. The story is kind of boring with the main conflict being between the main character Faredoon and his overbearing mother-in-law. Their squabbles impede Faredoon’s livelihood as the mother-in-law steals the candies from his shop, but their head butting is hardly worthy of literary attention. Despite the pedestrian in-law squabbles, there is an odd moment when Faredoon sets fire to his shop to successfully commit insurance fraud in an unsuccessful attempt to murder and be rid of his mother-in-law. She survives the fire by jumping off the balcony into the arms of the firemen. I found the build up to this scandalous event as out of character and unbelievable and after its occurrence the novel lacked an in-depth examination of the moral or ethical implications of the act. What could have been an intriguing character study turned out to be just one of the many events that happens to Faredoon and his wealthy and successful family. As novel progresses, the book vaguely attempts to explore multi-generational themes, but explorations of the choices made by Faredoon’s children are only a secondary afterthought to the ongoing strife between Faredoon and his mother-in-law. Even Faredoon’s daughter-in-law is afflicted by the mother-in-law and the end of the novel is so thoroughly focused on Faredoon’s son’s miserliness that I found myself utterly bored.
I could go on and on but it isn’t really worth my time.
From a narrative perspective, the book lacked significance. The language is simple, uninspiring and choppy. In reflection I can’t help but wonder if this book is lifted up as a masterpiece simply because it is a story that focuses on a rarely explored culture.