People, People, Everywhere, nor a Soul to Love.
Gabriel Packard’s debut will get readers’ hearts pounding and breaking
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“When I was a little girl, my dad left me and my mum, and he never came back. And you’re supposed to be gutted when that happens. But secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself, without having to share her with anyone.”
Thus begins The Painted Ocean, Gabriel Packard’s first novel, in which Shruti and her hungry heart propel the reader through a narrative that never lets its reader rest. Some people are drawn to books to rest. This book is not for such readers.
When I first picked up The Painted Ocean, I could not put it down. My bookmark was eventually employed between pages 110 and 111, where I stopped not only because I was afraid for Shruti, but also (mostly) afraid for myself and my pounding, breaking, hurting heart. Shruti’s breathless voice is British (hence the “mum” and “cos”) and convincingly childlike: only an innocent could survey the adult world with such objectivity. Her distinctive voice, not to mention the rapidity and sheer number of events that occur, places Packard in a distinctly Dickensian realm.
And like one of Dickens’ heroes, though the worst things that can happen to a human happen to Shruti, she maintains her innocence. Her voice never shifts, but remains consistent from the first word to the last. If we are to consider Blake’s opposition of innocence and experience, it is perhaps because Shruti is consistently denied agency in her experiences that she maintains her innocence. This lack of agency is believable in Shruti’s account of her childhood, for though she must often navigate the English world on behalf of her immigrant mother, she does so with a child’s lack of nuance. Her inability to see layers in a situation — such as her mother’s cruelty — is not something she questions, though she presumably tells her tale from the vantage of adulthood. Furthermore, she is clearly the victim of her own innocence. In one gut-wrenching episode, Shruti’s complete trust of her teacher leads her into a rats’ nest of social services that ultimately isolates the child even more.
As Shruti tells of entering young adulthood, her innocence begins to come across as a pathological lack of self-awareness. Though the conditions that lead to that lack are certainly believable, one does stop to consider what the consequences often are for young women of color who have been misunderstood and mistreated by predominantly white, Western communities. Certainly not vacations in New Zealand. By the end of her first year in college, Shruti has only made one friend in life, a fellow daughter-of-immigrants named Meena, who reads alternately as a bully and the only character who sees Shruti as a person. Shruti attempts to recruit Meena for an overseas work-study trip to New Zealand using methods that, despite or perhaps due to her lack of awareness, seem rather like emotional manipulation and thievery. And so it becomes difficult to avoid attempting diagnoses of Shruti or the plot’s plausibility, especially when her manic restlessness, extreme paranoia, and seemingly incurable loneliness lead her to what she eventually claims as a very happy — perhaps Shruti’s only happy — experience: that vacation in New Zealand that the reader does not get to witness.
Because we do not get to follow Shruti on her one holiday, it is nearly impossible to believe the close of her tale:
“…what I regret is that I was ever so innocent and pure and filled with hope when I was young, because it would be so much easier now to have never known any good times.”
Though the narrative moves through Shruti’s life in England, abroad, and back, as well as through her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, her voice does not waver. Nor does she divert from her need to make sense of humanity through the absolutes that have been imposed on her, in extreme measure. In other words, because her perspective never shifts, it is difficult to believe that her experiences ever did, that she was ever happy. Shruti was indeed innocent and pure as a child; she continued to be inexperienced in humanity as an adult who never felt connected to or loved by another human being. However, her “hopes” were few and her “good times,” invisible. The fictional heroine calls attention to her own fiction.
Perhaps the most awkward example of Shruti drawing attention to the telling of her own tale is when she sidesteps therapy in favor of joining a fiction workshop. Her account of her early family life — of her awful uncle from India and what, exactly, makes him bad — is called into question in one of these workshops, because Shruti has paid one of her white employees to pose as the author. This draws the author himself into the narrative, as if Packard were pre-empting critics of his book through the questions Shruti faces via her straw-author:
“the new…leader starts off by saying that he just wants to raise the question of whether…as a white person…has the right to occupy a character of South Asian ethnicity….”
By pitting the reader with Shruti against the workshop leader, Packard suggests that anyone who questions Shruti’s authority is questioning his own — an authority that, in both cases, would have been invisible by this point in the narrative. The wizard points to his own curtain.
And, for the most part, Shruti silences questions through the strength of her voice alone. Yet Shruti’s strength as a character is questionable, for even after she achieves physical safety away from the forces of evil that threaten her, she is not free of them. Shruti’s fear and pain dictate her decisions for the rest of her account of her life. She has so internalized the threats of her attackers that she believes she cannot be helped by telling the truth; she instead turns to that writing workshop, which fails to deliver the empathy and recognition she so desperately needs. Defeated, she neither wants to live nor die; she only can see people as good or bad, but they all turn out to be bad. And that is perhaps the tragedy Packard so empathetically delivers: that a human should have been so hurt by other humans that she can only ever know them as good or bad, never as something — as someone — in between.
Such a truth is one that only good fiction can deliver.