As any writer of memoir – whether fictional or autobiographical, or a mix of both — knows, there is a fine line between remembrance and nostalgia, and there is an almost irresistible urge to muse upon the nature of memory itself. Supriya Dravid’s novel, written in the form of a confessional memoir, is in part an extended investigation into the nature of memory, its selectiveness, its slipperiness and into the nature of writing. At the outset, her narrator, a young woman called Zephyr, wonders if writing is her “methadone”, a drug that keeps her from descending into the spiral of madness that has sucked in the other members of her family.
The novel opens with the death of Zephyr’s father, Gravy, whose siblings have recently committed suicide, and who ends his own life after an extended period of depression. When her mother — grief-stricken at the loss of the love of her life — casually mentions that Gravy was not her biological father, Zephyr embarks on a journey to uncover the mysteries surrounding her parents’ lives, mysteries that centre on the maverick character of her grandfather, Don.
Dravid has a penchant for composite figures. Sometimes they work — for example, Zef imagining her mother’s longlost lover as looking like “Jesus Christ on a Goan holiday” — and sometimes they’re just too much. Don — the central figure around whom all the other characters swirl — is “part Gatsby, part Hemingway”, he is also “something of a pastiche of a 1920s Eurotrash man-baby”. To her mother, he is the ultimate controller: “her Jesus Christ, her Sodom, her Gomorrah”. To his wife, he is “Steve McQueen, Al Capone, Tom Wolfe and Vronsky all rolled into one king of cool”. Don himself resorts to filmic metaphor — albeit rather mixed — when describing his young wife, Sancho: “She spoke like she was in a French film, you had to understand the nuances… I’d found Clint Eastwood for a wife.”
Each of the characters — Gravy, Don, Sancho, Zephyr herself and her mother perhaps most of all — is a little (or a lot) crazy. We get this. Unfortunately, to drive home the hothouse weirdocity of her characters, Dravid uses five metaphors where one would do. Even when we’re asleep, she explains, voices from the past “hover over our forgotten conscience like a blood-drunk mosquito that keeps coming back for another round”. Don’s house in Madras is “a shambolic, Versaillic, moth-ridden empire of despair”, which felt like “a cadaverous warehouse whose vampire residents had just left in a state of disarray to suck someone’s blood dry for dinner”, adding, for good measure, that it was “a cemetery of memories, a preface to the truth that would unfurl”.
And unfurl it does, over the following 240 pages, starting with Zef’s mother’s revelation about her father, and ending with further gothic twists in the family plot, a family riven with secrets, sex, betrayal and subterfuge. Mostly, it has to be said, fuelled by (to borrow Van Morrison’s phrase) crazy love. Nobody in this world seems to have a passing crush or a gentle fondness. The emotional temperature of the book is set to max, pretty much from the opening page. I found myself longing for pauses, for quieter sections, just for the sake of some variety. As we careen towards the inevitable crash-and-burn, I found myself sympathising with Don for reaching for the bottle to deaden his senses.
Dravid has potential as a writer. But someone in her publishing house should have wielded a far sterner editorial pen. Apart from missing some wince-worthy typos (the voice is created by vocal cords, not chords), the powerful emotions that Dravid strives to evoke end up deadened rather than heightened by her tendency to overwrite. A Cool Dark Place ends up as a lesson to all aspiring writers of truth, of the tenet that ‘less is more’. I have a hunch that she will learn from her first work, and expect that her next book — for surely there will be one — will be a lesser one, and all the better for that.
Anita Roy is senior editor with Zubaan Books