Here are two widely different summer reads?for a lounge in your back yard, at the beach, or in bed late at night?The Story of Beautiful Girl, by American novelist Rachel Simon, and The Sly Company of People Who Care, by Indian writer Rahul Bhattacharya. They could hardly be more different in form and content, though both share a sense of humanity and concern for others.
Simon has an agenda which sometimes intrudes into her story but more often is kept under control. In a note at the end, she mentions a sister with an intellectual disability and that when she was growing up family discussions often centered on parents who “put away” such children in institutions?mostly because they don’t want to deal with them. Her highly-charged and complex narrative begins in 1968, when late one night a widow, named Martha, who lives on a farm in Pennsylvania, hears a commotion outside in the middle of a heavy thunderstorm. When she opens the door, she sees two people huddled there, drenched and wrapped in wet blankets: a young woman and an older black man.
Quickly, she understands that the two figures have fled from a near-by mental institution (the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded), though it doesn’t take long to realize that neither fugitive really fits the category. The black man is a deaf mute; the woman almost equally silent but showing no evidence of being challenged. The widow helps them get cleaned up, provides them with warm clothing, and feeds them. Then, not much later, the authorities knock on the widow’s door, having tracked down the two escapees. In the disruption that follows, the black man escapes and the white woman is apprehended, but she manages to whisper to Martha as she is taken away, “Hide her.” Upstairs, Martha discovers a baby girl a few hours old.
A rather spectacular opening to a fast-paced novel that continues its narration down through the years, ending in 2000. Homan, the black man, is smart and talented at fixing things, but he was given no education in the institution after he was taken there. Ditto, the young girl, named Lynnie, who is a young woman by the time the story begins. Both have endured unspeakable treatment at the institution and no education, although the institution is charged with providing its inmates not only with their well-being but their schooling. The deep passion that Homan and Lynnie share for one another is profound, capable of sustaining them until they are finally reunited decades later, after which time the institution’s policies have been exposed and the place has been shut down.
There are loose ends to Simon’s story, plus a tendency to be both talky and cutsie, but you will find yourself turning pages as the narration shifts its focus to the characters already mentioned and a couple of others, including the child left in Martha’s care. Homan is skillfully drawn, Lynnie (the “beautiful girl” in Homan’s eyes) less so, no doubt because Homan survives in a world outside the institution while Lynnie is kept imprisoned for years. Above all, The Story of Beautiful Girl is well plotted and engaging.
Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care is plot less but equally addictive, demonstrating that there is no single way to present a story. The unnamed narrator in his mid-twenties is an Indian from Bombay returning to Guyana for a second time because of a brief trip when he fell in love with the country. This time he’s come for a year. What he relates is not so much a story about himself but a travel narrative describing what he loves about the country. For example, “Guyana had the feel of an accidental place. Partly it was the epic indolence. Partly it was the ethnic composition. In the slang of the street there was chinee, putagee, buck, coolie, blackman, and the combinations emanating from these, a separate and larger lexicon. On the ramble in such a land you could encounter a story every day.” Later, he adds, “Guyana was elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.”
The narrator meets plenty of those scoundrels on the streets and during his travels around the country. On the highway, he states, “We passed mandirs tiered like pagodas, and the sickly new cricket stadium the government of Indian nationals was constructing. Car shells grew out of mud, shot through with razor grass. We whizzed by a dozen dead kokers?sluice gates, fallen sentries. Run-over dogs were ground into the asphalt.” His companion named Baby (an adult male) explains to him, “Guyana having hardtime. Worlprice of bauxite low, worlprice of sugar low, worlprice of timber low. Is only diamond and gold which could do the job.” Increasingly, the language of the narrative slips into street Guyanese, the patois of the people.
Baby tries to offer an explanation for people’s names: “Amsterdam [someone they have encountered] had a little shop here, supplying the dredges in the area, run by a girl people seemed to be calling Fatgirl. A thing was what it was in Guyana. As a coolieman was a coolieman, as a man with one arm was Onehand, as the elephantiasis-afflicted was Bigfoot, so a thin man was Fineman and a fat girl was Fatgirl.” The country is an incredible melting pot. The narrator’s observations, his astute eye, become the source of energy of the story, culminating in a several-month relationship with a young Guyanese woman, with whom he continues his travels around the country.
Bhattacharya’s title tells it all. It’s the people?their decency (even of the supposed scoundrels)?who keep the story moving, people with a rich ethnicity and curiosity about others.
The Story of Beautiful Girl.
By Rachel Simon.
Grand Central, 346 pp., $24.99
The Sly Company of People Who Care.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $26
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.