Ravinder Randhawa is one of those authors whose work instantly gains my attention regardless of what it is. Her fiercely sharp eye for character and the inherent contradictions that power us all give each of her books a crackle and energy that other authors often don’t come close to. Her exasperated affection for her characters comes through on every page and her willingness to let them do awful, self-destructive if they really want to makes them all grounded, real and relatable.
The Coral Strand is a departure from her other work in terms of style, set as it is in two different time periods at once. However, everything else that makes her so essential is here by the bucket load and if you wanted somewhere to start with her work, this may be very well be it.
Sita makes an annual journey to the Mausoleum. That’s not its real name, but the only name it has for her. Its home to Emily and Champa, the two women who raised her in near captivity and who hid everything about her past from her. Finally, years ago, she took revenge and has spent her life building an eternal present for herself, terrified to move on, unable to stop looking back. Until one day, she no longer has a choice…
This plot is the closest to Randhawa’s previous work and there’s the same acute comic timing and fondness for the ugly side of our personalities here as in her other books. Sita is a complicated, difficult, often rude lead who has extremely good reasons for everything she does. Better still, she also doesn’t let herself off the hook. Sita may have escaped but she can never quite relax and as a result she’s locked into an eternal cycle of vigilance, waiting for her moment and possibly unable to take it when it comes. In other words, she’s escaped captivity everywhere but in her own mind.
She’s surrounded by history and as the book unfolds, Randhawa cleverly uses both Sita’s job and the extra work she’s manipulated into taking to explore and question our fondness for and obsession with our personal history. Sita is endlessly guarded in a way she no longer needs to be, but in understanding that she has to put herself in direct psychological and at one point physical danger. Her arc is the embodiment of ‘the only way out is through’ with added blunt force bickering and a beautifully realized sense of personal tragedy. As the book ends, Sita is whole again, her past filled in and her world more populated. She’s not healed though, just…differently broken as we all in the end hope to be.
If Sita’s journey in the present is about making peace with her damage and building on it, Emily’s journey is about refusing to make peace with her’s. Set in 1940s Mumbai, her story is tragic, brutal and subtle as only Randhawa can mix. Emily’s abandonment in India, her refusal to go home without something to show for it, the lengths she goes to and the price she pays never once redeem the awful things she does. However, they do provide context for it making her the very best kind of monster; one that’s familiar. One that could be us.
Together, these two women are linked by strands, both real and perceived that the book unravels. In doing so it explores the horrific impact of the British colonization, the way that abuse begets abuse and how, in the end, individual choice is one of the best, and hardest, things we can hope for. It’s a complex, difficult book that pulls no punches and tells no lies. It is in short a Ravinder Randhawa novel. One that’s ambitious, complicated and compelling, just like the two women at its heart.