Sunday, October 23, 2011

“A Sin of Colour” by Sunetra Gupta

For some reason this novel comes with an endorsement on the front page which reads: “A young, true heir to Virginia Woolf”. I think this was tossed at random: Sunetra Gupta is a very good writer, but she does not resemble Virginia Woolf (and I hope the comparison was not made because one of the characters in the book commits suicide by drowning). I would more eagerly compare her with Anita Desai: they are both very careful about language, the effort being repaid by delicate and precise sentences, and their novels go deep in the exploration of the characters' interior life in ways that are never obvious. It is nonetheless an investigation that is profoundly different from Woolf's interior monologues: Gupta's style is clearer and lyrical in a simpler way. If I were to make a comparison with two famous painters, I would quote Gauguin for Gupta (resolute brushstrokes, plus profound existentialist and philosophical allusions) and Monet for Woolf (hazy landscapes and mostly confused, conflicted emotions). The characters' feelings in Gupta's novel are complex and even they sometimes cannot name and explain their emotions, but the author's intentions are always manifest.
A Sin of Colour” tells the story of three generations, it starts in Calcutta just after the Partition and then goes on in Oxford, only to return to Calcutta in the last movement. I am using this term – movement – because the author obviously had a clear-cut idea of where the novel was going, relying upon structure and therefore giving to her story a feeling of harmony and cohesion that is not easy to find. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Sunetra Gupta is a scientist as well as a writer and has to work with numbers and fixed rules. “The Sin of Colour” begins with an impossible and purely platonic love between a young man called Debendranath Roy and his sister-in-law Reba. In the background there is the family's big mansion, named Mandalay in homage to the country and the city where the Roys made their money by trading teak. If all this rings a bell, it is not by chance: the novel is in fact inspired by Daphne Du Maurier's famous novel “Rebecca”, but this is not the only allusion in the book. “A Sin of Colour” is in fact peppered with references to many works of literature, from Tagore's songs to “Jane Eyre” and Bertold Brecht. The main subject of the novel, for example, made me think of Satyajit Ray's film “Charulata”, which is in fact based on a story by Tagore. It does feel right to learn that the author also translated some of the poet's work. All the literature references in the book, it needs to be clarified, are never annoying. On the contrary, they are very cleverly employed to build a story that always feels true. All the characters, starting from Debendranath's niece Niharika, leave a mark on you. Even the dull, boring English aunt is described with care and wisdom.
All in all, this is a brilliant book, soulful and written with expertise. It flows slowly, but it is never boring. I strongly recommend this to anyone who is interested in good writing and good storytelling, but does not feel attracted to the exotic side of many Indian writers.

About the author: Sunetra Gupta was born in Calcutta in 1965 and raised there and in Africa. She is a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and is the author of five novels. “Memories of Rain”, her first work of fiction, has been awarded the Sahitya Akademy Award in 1996.

Il libro è stato tradotto in italiano con il titolo "La Casa dei Giorni Dorati" ed è pubblicato da Piemme.


  1. This is the first book of hers and I loved it! BUT, and it's a big BUT and driving me crazy - do you think that the niece and her married lover committed suicide, or did they slip away as her uncle had done?


  2. Molto interessane. Ma penso che lo cerchero' in italiano

  3. @Judy: I like to think that they ran away. What I don't understand is why did Daniel refuse to divorce his wife. That is a better solution than either commit suicide or run away (in that way he does abandon his wife and daughter). I guess I'd need to be married to know why.

    @Sonia: Spero si trovi. Su ibs e amazon non è disponibile! :-( Comunque non è scritto in maniera difficile.

  4. Grazie, Stefania, lo leggerò sicuramente!

  5. sembra proprio interessante!! se ci fosse in italiano sarebbe il massimo. altrimenti vincerò la pigrizia!

  6. Thanks, Stefania - I'm going to go with your take on this, it makes me much happier!!

    I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

    Judy, Jacksonville, FL