Book review

In Janice Pariat’s novel 'Seahorse', real and metaphorical journeys between New Delhi and London

A narrative of journeys both internal and external, here is a first novel rich in detail and inviting in prose.

Janice Pariat’s first novel Seahorse is both a rivetting mystery and a passionate love story. Neremiah, or Nem, the protagonist, comes to Delhi from a small, hilly, rainy town in India to study literature and meets the handsome art professor Nicholas. Nem, who is already battling his ghosts from the past, is instantly drawn to Nicholas and develops an intense romantic relationship with him.

But one day, suddenly, without leaving any message, Nicholas disappears. He leaves India, and never comes back. Nem is unable to deal with this trauma and much of the novel is about how Nem narrates his tragedy in first person and how he tries to move on with his life.

Dextrously arranged around the anecdotes of Nicholas and Nem’s relationship is the story of rediscovering Nicholas in Britain more than a decade later. Nem – who is now in London for a fellowship – gets a note from Nicholas. This is a clue he is determined to follow, despite several obstacles that he will encounter.

What follows is a series of surprising turn of events. Pariat keeps the readers wonderfully hooked throughout his discovery process of Nicholas and his past life by revealing only the right amount of information.

Journeys metaphorical and real

Seahorse is also a novel of journeys at several levels. For instance, it can be read as Nem’s journey through a series of relationships – after Nicholas leaves, he dates women and men both in Delhi and London but memories of his passionate relationship with Lenny in his hometown and his intense attraction for Nicholas perhaps makes him unable to have sustained and meaningful relationships with other women and men.

Pariat’s lovemaking scenes are lyrical and lush like her prose, and they are a treat to read. They don’t reveal much. They are suggestive, and leave the reader wanting for a lot more.

Along with these figurative journeys from one relationship – or random hookups – to another, is another literal journey that shapes Nem’s life: the journey from his small hometown to Delhi where he studies, settles and earns a living, to his journey to London on a fellowship where he has to face and solve the mystery of his relationship with Nicholas in Delhi. The climax of the novel is set in the British countryside – far away from London – where he doesn’t get proper mobile network.

Nem travels to Myra’s house in the countryside, where she lives with her father, to learn why Nicholas disappeared. In this new place, he is trapped because of a flood and later by stories that he would unearth about Nicholas from Myra – who was introduced to Nem by Nicholas in India when she was visiting as “my step-sister.”

The devil in the details

One of the biggest strengths of Pariat’s writing is the beautiful and detailed description of Delhi and London. In her rich prose, the cities come alive with all their sensory details. However, this is also something that works against the otherwise gripping novel. It gives the plot a lot of fat, decreasing the energy and sense of movement. Though beautiful, a lot of the detailing of London comes across as unnecessary, if not indulgent. These passages neither take the story forward or deepen our understanding of the characters, nor contribute to the mood of the situations.

Pariat has a tendency to pour in every little bit of information about a journey that the characters are taking to get a drink or meet someone or watch a performance. Editing out some of these long walks with unnecessary details of London would have perhaps have provided more momentum. Similarly, there are numerous references to music played in the background.

At the end of the novel there is an author’s note that tries to encourage the readers to visit a web address to listen to the songs and compositions mentioned in the novel. The note laments that the book doesn’t come with a CD, and hence this page is curated for the adventurous reader. It reads rather like a defence for bombarding the readers with names of compositions. The story and the novel would have been even more enjoyable without these self-indulgent lists. A novel shouldn’t need a CD pack to create a mood – the text should be adequate.

Stumbling blocks

Another aspect where the novel stumbles is characterisation. Several characters, such as Malini and Nithi, are randomly inserted and abandoned soon after. These, and some other, characters are clearly pulled out of nowhere to make the plot move. This erodes the plausibility of the book and leaves us with just two memorable characters: Myra and Nem. One may not even care about Nicholas because so little is said about him. He is crucial only because Nem repeatedly remembers him and is scarred by his sudden disappearance. But at the end, it is Myra and Nem who emerge as compelling, real human beings: the rest of the characters seem like mere devices that were required to make the novel move forward.

This is disappointing, because so much care and attention has gone into creating the cityscape, in expressing Nem’s trauma with beautiful metaphors. In fact, we want to know about Nicholas so much because Nem is so obsessed with him, not because Nicholas himself is intriguing. But despite these minor issues that makes the novel occasionally a tedious read, Pariat deserves applause for telling a gripping story in a voice that is tender and inviting.

Aruni Kashyap is a novelist and translator.

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