Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters

Family Matters took me almost a full week – a long reading for me – to get through its 500-page length. It’s a very curious book, not least because anything else this long and detailed would automatically feel like an epic. Mistry’s story, however, remains intimate, and restricts itself to the immediate members of a family.

Nariman Vakeel is 79 years old and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. He lives with his stepson Jal and stepdaughter Coomy in the not entirely aptly named Chateau Felicity apartment block in Bombay. (Or is it Mumbai? One subplot of the book concerns the strongarm efforts by Shiv Sena Hindu nationalists to force inhabitants to stop using the anglicised form of the city’s name.) Jal and Coomy are protective of their stepfather, who tries to maintain his independence. One day when out alone Nariman falls, breaking his ankle, and for recuperation is sent to stay with his biological daughter Roxana and her husband Yezad. Coomy, glad to be rid of the burden, does everything she can to prevent Nariman from returning. This is despite the financial strains being put on Yezad and Roxana in supporting him, which leads to both Yezad and his son drifting into lawlessness to raise money, and ultimately to tragedy.

Despite the book’s recounting of often miserable events and lives, the tone is kept fairly light and almost in a stereotypical vain of Indian literature by English-speaking authors: a certain density and musicality of prose which never becomes turgid or unreadable. The characters are beautifully outlined, not least the secondary figures like Yezad’s employer Mr Kapur, and the disastrously bad handyman in the flat below Jal and Coomy.

But there’s something missing from Family Matters. Mistry’s attention to detail is sometimes akin to an inability to see the wood for the trees: the details are all beautifully done, and well worked out, and pleasing to read, but the story suffers. It’s sluggish and frequently seems inconsequential. Nothing very much happens other than what the blurb tells us – and then, suddenly and without warning, as though he recognised the need to shake things up a bit, around page 400 Mistry kills off five characters in quick succession. This has the effect of making everything afterwards seem like an epilogue – though there are still a hundred pages to go – and of letting the air in, and miraculously the book becomes much more alive from then on, despite an implausible lack of grief by the bereaved. But even so, at the end, when one character is veering toward religious fundamentalism, it feels as though there is much more to say and the ending seems arbitrary.

So Family Matters is a puzzle: grim but not depressing, long but not big, beautifully written but somewhat dull, and frequently admirable but rarely lovable.


  1. With such sentiments, I’m not sure if you’ll give Mistry another read. I began reading A Fine Balance and thought it was… very fine indeed. Probably due to its length, each of the main characters became so “real” that I felt I was watching a drama serial as I flipped the pages. Actually, even better – I could smell the charcoal on the characters’ teeth, their scat on the railway and sweat soaked in saris. As the story draws on, tragedy lurks and it continues to do so long after I finished the last page, because it refuses to be cathartic. You keep wanting to go back and watch them lead their sad, sorry lives. Very few books make me feel this way.

  2. Thanks Nicole – I think I probably would give Mistry another go, not least because I’ve heard that A Fine Balance is regarded as the best of his books. And looking back I feel I was unfairly harsh on Family Matters. I think I might need time to work up an appetite for the 600 pages though!

  3. Trust me, it’ll become the new cell phone. You’ll bring it along to bed, to the loo, the subway, to lunch and maybe to a date (or maybe not). Haha. I’m not trying to say its ‘that’ good but it IS engaging. Somehow I always associate it with Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace….

  4. John

    It’d be great to know what you think of A Fine Balance.

    I read it as a nineteen-year-old with not many books behind me and, like Nicole, I was totally absorbed, taking it with me everywhere, insisting friends read it at once. I think I got quite evangelical about it. But then I tried re-reading it last year and found myself becoming faintly annoyed with the author: I started to feel manipulated, and parts of the book began to seem a bit on the mawkish side. (Which just goes to show that re-reading books you once loved is a risky business.)

    I felt Family Matters suffered from a similar sentimentality, too: the younger son, Jehangir’s, attempts to ease his parents financial troubles; the violin-playing as Nariman died; Mr Kapoor’s (probably reflecting Mistry’s) nostalgia for Bombay – and I didn’t think any of these emotions were properly earned by the characters. At times the book was also absurd: the abrupt way it dealt with Coomy’s death, say, with the girder falling off the ceiling and smacking her head. (But the fact that, four years on, I can easily recall all these characters and events is a testament to the vividness of Mistry’s writing). However, I did lose some respect for the book – and the author – when Mistry spent nearly a whole half-page having a sly dig at Germaine Greer (she’d said she ‘hated’ AFB live on TV prior to the Booker announcement). Using novels to settle personal scores must surely nearly always be detrimental to the book; as soon as the reader picks up on what’s going on the fictional world the author’s spent time creating is in danger of very quickly evaporating.

  5. I checked out this review after your referenced it on William’s blog. I think it is a very fair summary of this book, which I also found somewhat disappointing. Family Matters was okay, but only okay.

    A Fine Balance is definitely a very much different book. Yes, it is long (my first edition hardcover is over 700 pages) but it never reads like a long book. In fact, I read it once a year for the first five years after it was published and would guess that I have now read it eight or nine times. It has been two or three years since I last read it — it is still on the upstairs shelf and may well be read again this year. I cannot recommend it too highly.

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