Book Review – Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry - Fiction

Family Matters follows in the tradition we have grown accustomed to from Rohinton Mistry.  Using India as a backdrop - dialog, humour, plot twists and tragedy are woven together to create a very compelling and thought-provoking story.

Set in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India in the mid-1990s, Family Matters documents the complex and gradually evolving interrelated relationships between three generations of a middle class family.   

In the core theme, the central character, Nariman Vakeel is approaching his declining years with Parkinson’s disease and is beginning to need assistance.  The family is naturally drawn to support him, and in the initial portion of the story, all appears to be in balance.  However, as his illness and circumstance gradually advance, Nariman breaks his ankle, a seemingly minor incident.  This sets into motion a set of circumstances which will affect every member of the family and as well, friends, neighbours, employers and others.

The dynamics of the family plays an important theme in this novel.  All of the characters have their unique personality and Rohinton makes full use of them. 
As the story evolves, each of the characters is forced to make personal decisions they would not normally have made under other circumstances, and then they have to address the resulting consequences.

A parallel story is revealed of Nariman’s youth and the personal conflict he has to attempt to resolve between his traditional Parsi wife and the woman he really loves.  This background theme provides yet another compelling tale for which no acceptable solution seems possible.

Although the book is focused on Bombay, it documents many of the key factors of the evolution of India as a continent.  Themes including the reduction of religion as a focal point, the increased attention to capitalism and western ideals and the problems of the ever-increasing population and resulting social challenges provide a backdrop to the central story.

Of course, the reader will probably be able to identify parallels from their own personal experience.  There is one character, an under-skilled but overconfident aspiring repair man named Edul who plays a minor but strategic role in the story.  I have personally known individuals who believe their talent to be greater then reality, but the optimism and tenacity of this character is truly astonishing.  His role provides both humorous relief and yet another interesting plot to follow.

Such a novel can touch the reader deeply and cause him to reflect on his own family or other personal relationships.  In my own case, it caused me to consider the relationship and support I provide to my aging mother and the importance of my wife and close friends.  This reflection turns out to be a good activity indeed.

All in all, the theme that we are masters of our own destiny and that we determine our futures from the decisions we make is a powerful one.  The observations of the decisions and consequences made by the characters in this book can provide valuable lessons for all of us.  As with Rohinton’s other novels, not all the questions are answered at the end of the novel and the reader is left to reflect on the possibilities.  As well, some of the plot developments, for example, the reasons why Nariman’s son in law, Yazud, turns to fundamental religion as a source of personal support, require the reader to contemplate and interpret in their own way.

I would recommend this book to anyone with a fascination of India or who likes a compelling story which explores the complexities of the human journey.
 
A most convenient method of reading the book is to rent it from Annie’s Heritage bookstore on a weekly basis for the small sum of $2.50/week (which I did).  Annie’s bookstore is located at 912 – 16th Avenue NW and can be reached by (403) 282-1330 or (annie@anniesbookcompany.ca).

Jim Standen