Mistress – Anita Nair

This isn’t the usual book I’d choose to read – but I’m pleased I made the effort. Mistress begins when travel writer Christopher Stewart arrives in Kerala to meet a famous kathakali dancer. He is writing a book about Koman and his life and has arranged to stay in the riverside resort belonging to Koman’s nephew-in-law, Shyam.

From the very start, Koman and his niece Radha are intrigued by Chris and his knowledge of other lands and cultures, and do their best to answer his constant questions. Radha, in particular, is drawn to him in a way she has never felt before. Her marriage to Shyam wasn’t entirely what she wanted, and she doesn’t love him in the way he wishes her to. Until this point she has been a reasonably dutiful wife – but the arrival of Chris in her life has stirred up feelings that frighten her. The mix of these new emotions and the discovery of her family’s past through Koman’s stories told to her and Chris send her into a tailspin.

Shyam notices a difference in Radha’s behaviour and at first tries to bury his head in the sand. But soon it becomes apparent that Radha is spending more and more time at the resort by the river with her Uncle and Chris – and as Shyam suspects – alone with the “Sahiv.” He is determined not to lose his wife, particularly not to a white man, and has no idea how to proceed without angering his fiery wife.

As the story continues, the present is intermingled with the past as Koman tells his life story. You will soon become intrigued with both stories, but as they alternate, you’re only told little sections at a time, which makes you want to keep reading to find out what happens next in both narratives. It’s not easy to follow, and this definitely isn’t a beach read. It’s a hard-hitting novel which takes the reader on not one, but two exciting journeys, with a definite surprise ending.

As I said, Mistress isn’t something I’d normally pick up, but it just goes to show you should give everything a chance. It’s hard work in places because of the dual narrative, and the frequent use of Indian words, but the context and the explanation in the back of the book will help you out if you get really stuck. Overall, an enjoyable and intriguing book – I’d recommend this to any avid reader.

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