GODS WITHOUT MEN by Hari Kunzru

It isn’t my place to say whether a book is ‘good’ or not. From day one of this blog I’ve set out to only review books I’ve enjoyed. My challenge is to find the words to show you (assuming there is a ‘you’ out there) just what it is I’ve enjoyed about the book.

My reading (and reviewing) runs parallel to my own writing ambitions. The more I read, the more ambitious I become. And the more ambitious, challenging or obscure the books I read are, the more I want to challenge myself with my own writing.

All of which brings to Gods Without Men. A book which slowed me down. A book which had me turning back to double check where I was, who was who. There’s a lot going on! But, I loved it, I feel enriched for spending a week consumed with it.

And here’s why:

As the book progresses we follow the story of a young New York couple, Jaz and Lisa. They are in the Mojave desert on a break with their profoundly autistic son, Raj. Theirs is a tortured marriage and the events in the desert find them struggling to cling on to anything resembling normality. The chapters devoted to this narrative are dispersed throughout the book and on a simple level tell a compelling drama of a son who disappears amid the confusion of a seemingly failed partnership. But don’t be fooled, there is so, so much more to explore.

The book is about place. There is a three pronged rock in the desert which hosts most of the stories appearing in the book. Chapters jump between years and combine imagined legends of coyote and 18th century mystery. A rock star hiding from his band, an airline pilot creating an outpost eatery, scientologists and a cult of dubious legitimacy using the three pronged rocks to communicate with extra terrestrial life.

Keeping up? You will be flicking back to check you’ve got the right character in your mind!

The writing style is textured and lyrical, no bouncing along, page turning formula here. As the book progressed, I delved deeper into every sentence and found myself absorbed by the mood of the book. I couldn’t have read it any quicker, I’d have missed it.

The narrative of Jaz and Lisa is pained. The public (and media) reaction to the disappearance of Raj felt as uncomfortable as I felt when the McCann family were so cruelly scrutinised when their daughter Madeleine disappeared. Jaz and Lisa’s circumstances are further complicated by her Jewish heritage and his Punjab roots. These cultures clash and at their worst, the racist undertones they have towards each other are barely disguised. It’s not a ‘feel good’ book, but it’s a bloody marvellous read.

After finishing Gods Without Men I closed it in my lap and just took a few minutes to absorb what I’d just witnessed. I’ve followed it by starting J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (which won the Mann Booker Prize in 1999). Coetzee’s work feels lighter and more traditional in its story telling by comparison. This contrast is pleasing on the eye and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on Disgrace. I’m enjoying varying the styles I read and Hari Kunzru certainly varies the pace and style, sometimes from chapter to chapter. Regular readers will remember I enjoyed his equally ‘literary’ White Tears.

For now though, I’ll recommend Gods Without Men, particularly for those of you wanting to delve into the possibilities of the unknown, question folklore and legend and revel in the ‘hippie’ style commune living which is certainly not portrayed as the idyll of a ’60s myth. Not only that, there’s a painful and frustrating love story running through the mystery of the disappearance of the child. It’s a fully loaded tome!

Is it any good? That’s not for me to say…….

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