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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Perfect Pledge

Rabindranath Maharaj

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To purchase A Perfect Pledge

Title: A Perfect Pledge
Author: Rabindranath Maharaj
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 401 pages
Availability: A Perfect Pledge - US
A Perfect Pledge - UK
A Perfect Pledge - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine local novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 11/10/2005 Marjorie Kehe
The Globe and Mail . 13/8/2005 Donna Bailey Nurse
The NY Times Book Rev. B 20/11/2005 Gregory Cowles
The Washington Post . 6/11/2005 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  It's a variation on A House for Mr. Biswas

  From the Reviews:
  • "The story is told through the eyes of Jeeves, and there is much in it to praise. The small world in which Jeeves lives is deftly and vividly imagined, as are the characters who surround him. (...) There is humor and there is writerly skill aplenty but in the end it is not enough." - Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

  • "In spite of Maharaj's ironic detachment, he manages to draw the reader very close to Narpat's family. We come to see them -- with all their strife and occasional violence -- as oddly loving and loyal. He achieves this partly by pausing now and again to offer a character's historical context, before swiftly returning us to the action. But this is just one of numerous literary sleights of hand Maharaj employs. In the end, we can't remember the precise moment we stopped rolling our eyes and began wiping them." - Donna Bailey Nurse, The Globe and Mail

  • "A Perfect Pledge often feels like a country cousin to A House for Mr. Biswas (.....) In the end, the book is like a music box: it's charming and you have to admire its elaborate craftsmanship, but you know more artful versions of the song exist." - Gregory Cowles, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a rich, expansive tale about a poor, compressed place that Maharaj loves enough to celebrate but knows well enough to recreate in all its stifling corruption and ignorance. (...) This is a charming story, but it's charming at about four miles an hour (with plenty of detours), which means it's easy to jump off before the considerable mass gathers momentum. Then it's unstoppable." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Perfect Pledge begins with the birth of the last of four children to Narpat and Dulari, Jeevan (called Jeeves), in the late 1950s in Trinidad, and, with a focus on the boy, the novel tells the story of the family over the next two decades or so. Narpat is already in his mid-fifties when his first son is born. He is a cane farmer, and a man of strong opinions regarding everything from diet to how one should live one's life. The Trinidad of these times -- making the transition to independence, with a local influx of blacks (the 'Outsiders'), and the slow collapse of the sugar-based economy -- makes for more challenges than the stubborn Narpat can successfully handle.
       The book is particularly successful in its early stages, with the focus on the young boy and the mysterious world around him. Little is explained to him, and his world is tightly circumscribed, as he is barely let out of the house (a shack, really) where they live, and the comings and goings and ways of his parents and sisters remain unfathomable mysteries.
       To the chagrin of his wife, Narpat is humble in his wants. Material wealth means little to him, and he insists on Spartan comforts at home rather than any frills. He does not think much of his successful relatives; indeed, there are few people Narpat has much respect for, including most of the other cane farmers and workers, wasting much of their money in the rumshops. He is an idealist -- and, as he likes to proclaim, a futurist. And that's what he wants everyone to be, especially the locals in this backwater that is dependant on the huge sugar companies. He wants them to:

start thinking more progressive. To become futurists. To concentrate on what we could change rather than what already happen. Futurists.
       But part of Narpat's problem is that his vision of the future is very different from the changes taking place around him, and that he is unwilling to embrace much of modernity. The battles to get a modern toilet and then electricity into the house are protracted ones, with Narpat only eventually resigning himself to permitting them. He is, at once, both revolutionary and deeply reactionary, and instead of a futurist, he winds up looking like a well-intentioned crackpot. In particular, it's his insistence on independence, on doing everything for and by himself, that sets him (and leaves him) apart. He is unable to take advantage of a culture of specialisation, insisting on wiring his own house and installing his own water pipes, and while he does most of this work adequately, it's not an ideal use of resources and talents.
       Narpat becomes involved in politics too, sitting on the council for one term after independence, but he is too set in his own very different ways to be able to make much of a difference. He has one great success, in getting ownership of the local land transferred to the farmers who have been working it for decades, but it is a small and under-appreciated victory. His quixotic (with windmills and all !) grand life's ambition then is the realisation of his idea to gain independence for him and his fellow cane farmers by building a factory to process sugar, so that they can reap far more of the rewards from their cane farming. Typically, though he undertakes the project almost single-handedly, he wants it to be a co-operative, with all sharing in the additional wealth, rather than he alone benefiting. His idealistic concept of community is, however, at odds with the each man for himself reality around him, something he (or rather his wife and family, since he himself seems largely indifferent to it) suffer for constantly. And, as the factory slowly gets built, the sugar market goes into ever deeper crisis, no longer a driving force of an economy that is expanding in other ways (which Narpat has no appreciation for).
       Narpat and his family live in a true backwater, but even here there is change. Notably, Outsiders -- blacks, looked upon with suspicion -- move nearby in larger numbers. And while the other family members do make forays into the island's larger towns, Narpat generally avoids them.
       For Jeeves, school is a whole new world, and Maharaj introduces some colourful additional characters here: the corrupt Manager, his teacher-daughter, and the would-be writer returned from Canada, Mr. Doon. (Doon eventually has two children, and he names the poor things Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and while he fails in his grand writing ambition eventually does meet with surprising literary success.)
       Maharaj seems uncertain of which character to focus on, Jeeves or Narpat, and the shifts are somewhat awkward. Jeeves, in particular, remains a surprisingly passive character; only when he matures does he appear to begin to come into his own and have any discernible character, but Maharaj rushes through much of these later years. Narpat, too, remains something of an enigma, but the descriptions of him and his actions do form the image of a more interesting character. (The women are, for the most part, distinctly secondary.) Still, some of the father-son relationship that is suggested -- Narpat's explanation of the tests that one faces in life, and his notion of the 'perfect pledge' of the title ("when you willing to make any sacrifice to fulfill a promise you spent your whole life preparing for. Something only you could do") -- don't seem sufficiently used through the book. A Perfect Pledge is far more Narpat's story but, with the focus so often on the less interesting Jeeves, leaves something of an unsatisfactory feel to it.
       Many of the small scenes and tribulations are very well done, and even the patois dialogue doesn't become too grating. A Perfect Pledge is a fairly successful slice of life from this place and time, but does feel like a slice, rather than a whole, with a few too many forced peripheral characters, too many left underdeveloped (especially Narpat's three daughters), and a slightly uncertain narrative arc. It's an interesting world, which helps hold the reader's interest, but the picture ultimately is not a complete one.

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A Perfect Pledge: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Rabindranath Maharaj was born in 1955. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, he now lives in Canada.

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© 2005-2021 the complete review

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