A whole lotta love before death

SINGAPORE - Book Review.

THE ABUNDANCE by Amit Majmudar

Oneworld/ Paperback/258 pages/$16.95 before GST/Major bookstores/ 3.5 Stars

Though it begins with a sentence of death, The Abundance is full of wry and loving observations on life.

Radiologist-turned-writer Amit Maj- mudar turns his sensitive eye on the generation gap between immigrant parents and their naturalised progeny in his second novel, after the critically acclaimed Partitions (2011), about the 1947 separation of India and Pakistan.

It is a subject the Indian-American is clearly familiar with - one of the central characters is a medical specialist by day, allowed to give free rein to his true love, mathematics, only at night.

But the true protagonist and narrator of the book is the mathematician's wife, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer at the start of the book and refuses to let this news upset the Christmas visits of her children and grandchildren.

She is deliberately left unnamed as if to underline how a woman's personal identity tends to be subsumed in the larger family and unthinkingly ignored by husband and children until her loss is imminent.

The first third of the narrative is pure book-club gold, setting up characters and culture clashes between the generations in the vein of Jhumpa Lahiri's 2003 novel about the Indian-American immigrant experience, The Namesake, or even Amy Tan's 1989 story about immigrant Chinese-American women and their estranged daughters, The Joy Luck Club.

The narrator in The Abundance has much in common with the maternal figures in those two novels, in that she cannot effectively communicate affection for either of her two children.

Her grown daughter Mala reads every remark as a negative comment on her abilities, while son Ronak is taciturn and aloof.

Both children unbend once the truth is out and try to reconnect with their mother and here is where the narrative takes a deliberate and satisfying swerve from the usual.

It has been 24 years since Amy Tan softened the market for such family dramas with The Joy Luck Club, and the parents and children on either side of the generation gap therefore come from different times and less hidebound backgrounds.

Though the rule in such books is that parents must be die-hard traditionalists, while the prodigals rebel against all they were taught until the appropriately climactic return to the parental fold, The Abundance is much more true to life.

Yes, Mala decides to take over kitchen duties, but ends up irritating her mother, who sees the usurpation of the kitchen as a damning sign of her own weakness.

Ronak, in a fit of filial piety, downloads Hindu hymns onto a portable hard drive for his mother's listening pleasure - "You'll like it. It's really holy," he says naively, proving how little he actually knows of his mother's likes and dislikes.

It is impossible to read this book and not smile.

The narrator in The Abundance is not the typical self-sacrificing Asian woman who might populate other novels of this type.

A medical doctor with a career in her own right, she came to America with her husband to forge a new life, but found her ambitions derailed by the needs of her children.

Given this background, it seems strange that there is a generation gap and, the truth is, she hardly realised it existed until one day, her teenage children turned out to be strangers.

She and her husband came from a culture where people commiserate over losing weight - to "reduce" indicates ill health and lack of wealth - while her daughter flirts with anorexia and her son lifts weights relentlessly, hoping to fit in.

Majmudar paints a sensitive portrait of a family who may never quite understand one another, but decide to try, just in time.

The narrator's illness removes the self-imposed barriers of pride and misunderstanding, proving that underneath, there is genuine affection - an abundance of it, which overpowers the sadness over the inevitable separation.

If you like this, read: The End Of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe (2013, Two Roads, $22.95, Books Kinokuniya). It is the true story of a man and his mother who reconnect through a love of reading when she is diagnosed with cancer.

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