Book Review: Anita Desai’s The Zigzag Way

The Zigzag WayThe Zigzag Way by Anita Desai

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At university, with the incomparable Geoffrey Eathorne as our professor for our Commonwealth Literature course at Trent University in Canada, I read Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. It was a stand out. I don’t remember it perfectly but that it had beautiful writing and I enjoyed the story.

Two decades letter, I haven’t read anything by her since and saw ‘The Zigzag way’ on the shelf of a favourite used bookstore. The story is set in Mexico, a young academic, aimless, looking for his past and something to do while his partner is doing research there. He zigzags into one story, an eccentric and mysterious old European woman who has gained a reputation on an expert in a local indigenous group. And then leaving her, he zigzags into the story of his grandfather, a Cornish miner who worked in the mines of Mexico.

I can see the richness of the original idea, and the threads did come together somewhat – but I also got the feeling of a writer who was trying to put some of her travel experiences into a story and perhaps got a grant to do so. Themes of displacement and belonging, travel and immigration, finding one’s way and one’s history: yes. But the story is not particularly deeply felt and the main character has a somewhat weak personality. If I was to climb aboard the idea of a zigzag story, I wanted more than what I got.

I also found that her writing could be beautiful at times, but other times overwritten. Waiting for the formidable Doña Vera to speak, she “considered her reply. Then it came, as ominous as a rumble of pebbles in a dry arroyo, heard at first from a distance, then gathering strength as it approached, finally crashing upon them.”

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(Hmm, goodreads has a pretty nice function for doing a review on their website and copying it to my blog. I think I’ll try it out some more.)

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