A week ago I published a blog post listing a few things that I hate seeing in modern fiction. One of the items was when an author switches between first and third person in the narrative. I did suggest that there could be exceptions to the rule, but readers may have noticed that I floundered a bit when trying to determine what those exceptions would be. When would such a practice make sense in a book’s narrative? Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni may have provided an answer to that question.
The book takes place over a span of 68 years (with one flashback sequence at an earlier, unspecified time) and three generations of Indian women—Sabitri, Bela and Tera. (Sabitri’s mother, Durga, is also mentioned but doesn’t feature in a narrative of her own but is more significant as part of Sabitri’s story.) The plot is one that jumps back and forth in time but not in structure. Each chapter features one of the three women at a different stage in her life but not necessarily told in her perspective. Sometimes, we get the point of view from one of the men that these men have affected, and the effects they have on them.
The switch in the point of view centers mainly around Tera. While most of the rest of the book is told in third, her chapters are told in first person (with one chapter, telling the tale of a defining event in her life, switching between first and third as it switches between her and another character). This gives the feeling that the whole book is meant to be taken as the story of Tera with the lives of her mother and grandmother as part of her backstory, whether or not she knows what that story is. Or it could be taken that her portions of the book are the culmination of all that have come before.
The only exception to this rule was a later chapter told from the point of view, in first person, from a man named Kenneth. He appears only in this chapter and only briefly referred to again twice in the book. His chapter is meant to showcase an important part of Bela’s life, after she divorces her husband Sanjay. Kenneth helps Bela get back on track in her personal as well as professional life, by helping her get a job, quit drinking and then become the famous blogger and author of cookbooks she’s become by the end of the book.
Kenneth plays a brief but important role in the book, yet I am left unsure as to why so much effort was put into his own back story and why his chapter is told in first person. It not only goes against my above hypothesis of Tera’s chapters but I’m left confused as to why I got so invested in this one character that I’ll never see again. Still, this chapter did give me insight to the growth of one of the characters of the book and the change of voice did provide some entertainment.
The family of women is not the most functional of families, and a large part of that is due to Sanjay—he convinced Bela to leave India, estranging her from Sabitri, and then divorced Bela, estranging him and ultimately her from Tera. It’s only after his death that Bela and Tera are able to reconcile, or at least recognize their differences. They don’t exactly get along by the end, but discovering a long-lost letter from Sabitri (by then long deceased) causes them to realize that there is more in life than what is expected of them and to learn to do something unique and all their own, which the two need.
The book is Divakaruni’s sixteenth and the story is masterly crafted. The prose feels rushed in places, however. I lost count of how many times characters’ eyes narrowed to show disapproval, how many phone calls were intentionally unanswered or how many instances the narrative flat-out tells the reader that certain characters are able to speak through body language, instead of just showing the body language and leading us figure it out for ourselves. Things may tie up a little too nicely at the end but that’s not the point. The pleasure of reading the book is how the characters, along with the reader, get there.