Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: The Counsel of Strangers

It is hard to be objective when you are reading a book written by someone you know. There you are immersed in the story, and suddenly something triggers off a sense of déjà vous, and you recognise an incident that you know is autobiographical. It happened to me so often while reading Gouri Dange’s ‘The Counsel of Strangers’ that I had to re-read the book after a gap of a week before I could look at it dispassionately.

The premise of ‘The Counsel of Strangers’ is simple- six strangers are thrown together for a night, and under the shadow of anonymity share their stories, and help each other come to terms with the events that have been troubling them. The Hows and Whys of six diverse people finding themselves together is immaterial- they could have met at an airport longue, they could have been held hostage in a five-star hotel by terrorists, or they could (as happened) have found themselves as reluctant guests at a boisterous Indian wedding. The point is that six people ranging in age from 14 to 70 were thrown together for a night, and they each chose to share their stories, and offer support to the others. And there the author excels.

Gouri Dange is the undisputed Master of the Short Story- each story was beautifully written, and drew the reader in. The characters were etched with firm strokes, with just a suggestion of colour- the reader could choose to fill in the shapes, or leave them minimalistic. The situations were believable, even if they were situations we normally tend to avoid thinking about. And each of the characters held all the pieces of the future in their hands, and needed only a little help in putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their lives. At no point did you wonder how each of them was able to offer sensible advice to the other people, but struggle to bring their own life in order, because you know that it is the way things actually work in life.

If there was a flaw, it was in the narrative technique adopted. Each of the characters told their story, at the end of which the others helped point the character in the right direction. The book ended with an epilogue where each of the six strangers sent an e-mail to the others telling them how they managed to resolve their own particular dilemmas. The weakest point of the narrative was when each of the stories were interrupted by celebratory fireworks, or by a sortie to scrounge for food. It was necessary to contextualizing the location, but I wonder if it could not have been done in a way that integrated better. But that was a minor point- one which I was more than happy to overlook in an otherwise excellent story.

Could something like this actually happen in real life? Would anyone confide their deepest secrets in a total stranger? Would a stranger be able to offer meaningful counsel? I personally believe that the answer to all three questions is a resounding ‘Yes’. There are people with whom I have clicked at the very first meeting, and at least one person has confided in me the very first time we met (that we later became good friends is a totally different story). More and more, in my life, I find that the most unexpected people end up offering the best advice and support- where once you may have relied on family and friends, today you cannot predict who it is that will help you and when.

Overall, a must read for anyone who wants a slice of modern urban and NRI India.

[This is an unsolicited review. I do know the author, but she did not ask me to do the review, or influence it in any way. I bought the book myself.]


Margot Kinberg said...

Rayna - Oh, what a very interesting premise! I really like the idea of exploring what happens when people who are more or less strangers to each other interact. You've inspired me!

Journaling Woman said...

Yes, I believe strangers thrust together might reveal personal stuff. There have been many times strangers have shared too much personal info. :)

Great review.

Mason Canyon said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I do like the plot. I agree with you on 'yes' strangers sometimes tell their problems to strangers. In addition, I think sometimes strangers can give better advice to help solve a problem because they aren't connected. Great review.

Thoughts in Progress

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Sounds like an interesting book, though to be honest at the moment I am not into books as I am kept busy with family and blogging and other pc sites. If I do read it is just before I go to bed to wind down after a hectic day,


dipali said...

It is a wonderful book that rings true so often! I really like the truth of the Yeats quote that Gouri opens with: "There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't yet met."
I know I've had wonderful conversations on train journeys, and many strangers in the journey of my life have become friends.
Now to wait for her next book:)
And yours, my dear. How's it going?

Helen Ginger said...

It sounds like a very interesting book. I have no doubt that strangers can give good advice. They have no real stake in the problem or issue so they can see it without emotion and the baggage that comes with it. I don't know about someone telling the deepest secrets to a stranger, though. That would be difficult.

Jules said...

Sounds like an interesting read. I agree with your observation of strangers, divulging information and help. Your friend is lucky to have you.

Stephanie Faris said...

I think some people are more likely to confide in a total stranger, if given the chance. It's someone you'll never see again and you know telling that person your secrets isn't going to hurt them or come back to haunt you in any way.

Clarissa Draper said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. I think it's possible in trying situations to really confide in a total stranger. I meet some older women at the grocery store that love to tell me about all their health problems. Thanks for the review.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting idea for a book. Strangers are certainly more objective.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I can see it happening!

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Margot- and I loved the post you came up with- inspirational.

@ Journaling Woman- that is the other side of the coin, isn't it? Though if I were to confide, I am sure I would not tell them my name, because that is unnecessary

@ Mason- precisely. There are no hidden agendas, and no biases, so best advice.

@ Yvonne - I know the feeling.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ dipali- I loved that too, and it reminded me of the fact that till a little over a year back, forget being strangers, we didn't even know the other existed.

@ Helen- I guess it depends on the person. I for one find seem to inspire people to spill out their guts, and the few times I have done so, it has been with unexpected people.

@ Jules- it does happen, sometimes, doesn't it?

@ Stephanie- precisely. The reason I don't like confiding in people I know is because I know they are going to keep knowing.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Clarissa- you are a writer, which means you are a people watcher, which also means you are a sympathetic listener. Any wonder old women spill their guts when they see you?

@ Alex- they are, aren't they?

@ Diane- I can see it happening a lot with you- something about you inspires people to tell their stories, I think.


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