The idea of the perfect first sentence has been haunting writers and authors for decades. The pressure is high – literary communities relentlessly point to the brilliance of the first sentence of classic novels, and modern writers feel they must live up to the same standard to write the next great book.
It’s a snap judgement for readers, too: If the first sentence of a novel doesn’t seem outstanding, they aren’t particularly enthused about the rest of it. Avni Doshi, in her debut novel Girl in White Cotton, doesn’t try to create the perfect first sentence – she succeeds naturally.
“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.”
What follows is a series of great sentences that come together to create chapters with depth and feeling. You can’t miss a beat with Doshi’s writing – each word is carefully selected to extract the most appropriate tone and emotion for the scene. Perhaps that is why Girl in White Cotton is so perfectly tragic in the way that families often tend to be.
Doshi writes sharply, in no-nonsense prose. Not a single sentence in the book can be omitted. The writer knows exactly how to make her characters human, how to describe Pune and Bombay to elicit nostalgia, how to cut through the frivolity of modern writers and say exactly what is appropriate. She encompasses layers of interpretation and emotion into crisp writing.
Antara is a slightly angry / slightly sad daughter trying to cope with the reality of her mother Tara’s memory loss. In addition to forgetting to switch off the gas at night, Tara has been forgetting that her friends are dead. Their relationship has always been tumultuous – Tara has seen divorce, homelessness, and pining, while little Antara has been trying to reach out to her mother all through her childhood. But now, the caretaking roles have been reversed and Antara has no idea how to care for a woman who couldn’t do it for her.
This is no overarching narrative that extends itself into social commentary or political allegory. All that it sets out to be is an observation of social relationships and how they change when they come under external pressure.
Antara is angry and sad, frustrated yet understanding – you can see vestiges of the neglected child in the forcefully independent adult. Tara is, by force, unaccepting of her illness, but it isn’t her fault – even though Antara might contest the claim. Everybody else is white noise, whether it be Dilip (her husband), Anikka (her daughter) or her father and his new wife, or her mother-in-law. Antara and Tara are at the centre of this not-romance, as it all begins with them and ends with them.
The final chapter of the novel is a masterclass in felt narrative, so much so that one wonders how close Doshi truly has been to this narrative. It’s the perfect end to a story about relationships – it doesn’t come to a head dramatically with a significant event, but boils down to the discomfort that has defined Antara and Tara’s journey.
It’s an ending that stays with you after you’ve shut the book and gone about life, making you introspect on all the social relationships that matter to you. Begging the question of whether Tara’s decline is truly only Tara’s, the final pages almost demand a re-reading to truly absorb every single feeling contained in those delicate pages.
Like perfect first sentences, Doshi knows how to write the perfect last sentence. Girl in White Cotton is engaging from cover to cover, with each narrative reading so easily it feels like reading someone’s diary. Avni Doshi is a force to watch out for in the literary world.
Girl In White Cotton, Avni Doshi, HarperCollins India.