30 December 2015

A Yellow-Winged Stranger by Imran Usman

This is an interesting book and worth persisting with, despite the flaws that I will mention in a moment. It is difficult to allocate it to a genre. I suppose it fits into the ‘literary fiction’ catchall, but that doesn’t say much. There is almost an air of magical realism about the book. I say ‘almost’, because the elements that contribute to this impression turn out to have a logical explanation: for example, a prisoner finding writing upon the wall of a prison cell that relates directly to his own life. For a moment the laws of nature appear fragile. Almost.

The story begins with a family situation, Howard and his parents, which ends with a death. This then segues into the trial of a young man, Ethan, for murder; he is suspected of being a notorious serial killer. The connection between these two parts of the story is not immediately obvious. This then segues into the story of Jack, which is written by Jack himself on the walls of Ethan’s cell. This, then, becomes a first person narrative, whereas the surrounding story is in the third person. Again, the connection of this story with the other stories is not immediately apparent, but gradually emerges. This is a very successful and clever device, despite the apparent implausibility. Then the different strands of the story begin to interact and are skilfully woven together. Even minor characters in the story—a lawyer, a policeman, a forensic investigator—find their place in the back story that emerges.

This is cleverly done, and I think it works, although I did at times find myself a little confused, wondering if the ‘Matt’ (for example) mentioned at this part of the story was the same as the ‘Matt’ mentioned earlier. I think I had it sorted in the end, although one or two nagging doubts about who was who, when and where, remained.

The characters are well drawn and complex. I particularly liked the character of Jack, whose story is written on the cell wall. I am not always a fan of first person narration, but I think this works particularly well. The writing of this particular stream of the narrative was also of a higher quality.

This brings me to the major flaws of the book. In many places the English is very poor. There is poor grammar and incorrect word choice. I imagine that English is not the author’s first language. Several times, particularly early on, I almost gave up on the book because of this, although I am glad that I didn’t. The language at times is excessively flowery, and the characters and narrator are sometimes prone to lapsing into philosophical discourses. This may work well with an Indian audience (the author was born in India) but less so with a Western audience. Although there are still flaws in the ‘Jack’ narrative, I thought the writing was of a higher quality, at times even acquiring a certain beauty.

Many will be put off by the flaws in the writing, or will not have the patience to wait for the strands of the story to be woven together; but those who persist to the end will, I think, be pleased with the result.

I have decided to no longer rate books using the star system. I don’t think it is helpful.