Em and the Big Hoom
EM AND THE BIG HOOM is not a long novel, but it’s not a quick one either, as readers will find themselves pulled deeply into Jerry Pinto's tale of a family discombobulated by mental illness. Written with a witty and language-loving style, the story is told from the perspective of the only son of Imelda and Augustine. He and his sister, Susan, are the witnesses to their mother's battle with bipolar disorder and their father's patient care of the woman he has loved for decades.
"EM AND THE BIG HOOM is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly heartbreaking debut novel. It is singular in its voice and characters but also reminiscent of other wonderful contemporary Indian writers like Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai."
Imelda, or Em as her children called her, arrived in Goa from Burma with her Roman Catholic family before moving to Bombay. When she was old enough to work, she handed over her money to help support them. It was while working in an office that she met Augustine Mendes, a dashing and upwardly mobile engineer who was also a Catholic from Goa. Their long and chaste courtship takes place in bookshops where they never buy books, and eventually, with some family pressure, they decide to get married. Imelda is eccentric and intelligent, and Augustine is smart and steady. All is well until their second child, a son, is born. Imelda suffers from depression after the birth, and thus begins decades of extreme mental illness as she swings between manic and paranoid highs and suicidal lows.
EM AND THE BIG HOOM is less about plot and action than it is about characters, emotions and response. It is the brutally realistic story of a family orbiting around one member, sometimes intrigued, but mostly fearful, of what she will do or say. In the darkest moments that Em is asking her family to kill her or let her die, she is stepping in front of buses or slashing her wrists in the tub. At other times, she is running from the voices she hears, chain smoking, telling stream-of-consciousness stories, alternately complimenting and insulting her children. She is unpredictable, charming, not always loving, but totally fascinating and frightening.
Although the spotlight is on Em, Pinto doesn't neglect to examine the “paragon” that is The Big Hoom. While Em's motivations and thoughts are generally mysterious or unhealthy, the narrator can examine The Big Hoom more objectively, trying to understand his father and his father's relationship to his mother. This proves difficult as well, as the three other members of the family are all enmeshed in Em's tangled web of ill health.
EM AND THE BIG HOOM is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly heartbreaking debut novel. It is singular in its voice and characters but also reminiscent of other wonderful contemporary Indian writers like Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai. The use of humor and clever dialogue to both diffuse and illuminate bleak and painful situations will remind some of Salman Rushdie as well. And, like these authors, Pinto weaves into his novel aspects of modern Indian life --- from economic and linguistic realities to issues of religious, ethnic and cultural identity.
The word play is amazing, irresistible and inventive, while the tale told is exuberant and terrible. Quite simply, this short novel is a big and powerful story about love and family.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 18, 2014
Em and the Big Hoom
- Publication Date: June 24, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books
- ISBN-10: 0143124765
- ISBN-13: 9780143124764