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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Em and the Big Hoom

Jerry Pinto

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To purchase Em and the Big Hoom

Title: Em and the Big Hoom
Author: Jerry Pinto
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 213 pages
Availability: Em and the Big Hoom - US
Em and the Big Hoom - UK
Em and the Big Hoom - Canada
Em and the Big Hoom - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : often wonderful writing, but feels too anchored in the auto/biographical

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/5/2014 Peter Yeung
The Guardian . 2/5/2014 Scarlett Thomas
The Independent . 22/5/2014 Sean O'Brien
India Today . 26/5/2012 Anvar Alikhan
Indian Express . 12/5/2012 S.Anand
Irish Times A+ 3/5/2014 Eileen Battersby
Outlook India . 28/5/2012 Shabnam Minwalla
Sunday Times . 4/5/2014 Claire Lowdon
The Times . 10/5/2014 Abhijeet Ahluwalia
Times of India . 14/1/2014 Ipshita Mitra

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is written with genuine compassion and sincerity, while a sprinkling of black humour ensures it is never overly sentimental." - Peter Yeung, Financial Times

  • "This book is most successful when the characters are allowed to speak for themselves, and Pinto is quite a genius with dialogue. (...) This is an India that many people won't have seen, and while we don't spend enough time in that flat in Bombay, it is worth hanging around outside." - Scarlett Thomas, The Guardian

  • "It's a memorable chamber work, with wide appeal." - Sean O'Brien, The Independent

  • "It's a little like reading The Bell Jar, as written from the point of view of Sylvia Plath's bewildered, adolescent son (.....) I don't know how much of this book is autobiographical, but I suspect a large part of it is: It's just too authentic, in its minutiae of mental illness, and its deliberately matter-of-fact narrative of pain, for it to be the fiction that it pretends to be. It's an emotionally daunting book and, frankly, I'm not sure everybody will have the strength, or even the compassion, to reap its richness." - Anvar Alikhan, India Today

  • "Besides a delightfully meandering meditation on madness, what Jerry has also produced is a fine Bombay novel (with a few forays into Goa) that wears the city lightly on its sleeve." - S. Anand, Indian Express

  • "Pinto’s book is shocking in its impressive understatement (.....) Pinto writes with impressive ease and humour, both of which temper his candour and the detailed memories of the many drugs that offered hope before creating more disaster. (...) There may not be such a thing as a perfect book, yet Jerry Pinto comes heartbreakingly close." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Despite the stomach-clenching subject of his novel, Pinto disdains melodrama and sticky sentimentality. (...) Em and the Big Hoom is a marvellously evocative book about Mumbai -- and a searing tale about the havoc that mental illness wreaks on a family. To borrow a Pintoism, it is an easy-butter-jelly-jam book to recommend." - Shabnam Minwalla, Outlook India

  • "Jerry Pinto in this book is not establishing madness as a disease deserving only clinical treatment or a few words of sympathy and consolation." - Ipshita Mitra, Times of India

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:

       Em and The Big Hoom of the title are Imelda and Augustine, the parents of the narrator, and the novel is a portrait of them, a son describing his relationships with them as well as what he learns about their past. Much of the novel focuses on the time when the narrator is in his teens and twenties, when the family must deal with the fact that Em is mentally ill. Apparently a manic depressive, it manifests itself in suicide attempts, occasional paranoia, and a tremendous bluntness to her conversation; she is sometimes hospitalized, or closely watched at home. Medication helps -- for a while lithium does the trick -- and there are periods of calm, but she remains unstable.
       Naturally, it makes for a difficult home environment, and yet also one to which the family members (there's also older sister Susan, called 'Lao-Tsu' by Em ("It came from Sue to Tsu -- in some letter she had written to us of an afternoon -- to Lao-Tsu")) adapt themselves. The narrator often asks Em about her past, and her directness -- though often unsettling (especially since she's generally also very direct about sexual matters) -- at least makes for fairly open discussion. This isn't a family of many secrets, or much privacy.
       Unsurprisingly, dealing with a mentally unbalanced person proves difficult and frustrating. The narrator sympathizes with his grandmother, but is also realistic about the situation, noting:

She loved Em and she thought that should be enough. It wasn't. Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again.
       Em's madness, and how it manifests itself -- both self-destructive and hurtful, at times -- naturally complicates her relationships with her family (though The Big Hoom remains -- or is seen by his son -- as consistently understanding), but it also can serve as an excuse:
We could always dismiss what she was saying as an emanation of the madness, not an insult or a hurt or a real critique to be taken seriously. We often did dismiss what she said, but more often than not, it was self-defence.
       The narrator also learns of his parents' long courtship -- some twelve years ("Family legend says that they might have gone on for another twelve, perhaps forever") -- and then their early married lives as: "part of the dosa-thin middle class of the 1960s"; he seems surprised that, despite the circumstances (though this is a time before her illness had manifested itself): "they had been happy. Improbably happy."
       Em is a strong presence and loud voice -- tempered here, some, as the narrator pays some attention to, for example, his father's unlikely career path, too, but always the dominant figure. It's an often wonderful voice -- almost always self-aware, and forthright (often terribly so) -- and also adds to the affectionate humor found throughout the account. Apart from the awkwardness of her forthrightness about sexual matters, there are also many nice and often very funny exchanges here. And hints of other things (regrettably not related at greater length), such as the aside of how they had "allowed" Em to resigned from her position at the American Consulate: "when she started adding her own, and very alarming, comments to diplomatic reports".
       Em and the Big Hoom does, however, have a strongly autobiographical feel to it, a handling of the characters that seems deeply anchored in personal experience. Ironically, this seems to hold Pinto back: despite appearing to be so revealing -- with all of Em's up-front, unvarnished truths, and quite a bit of soul-baring -- the novel feels cautious and restrained, each of the characters only seen from certain, limited angles -- the sister, for example, barely at all. Pinto writes so exceptionally well that the novel is a joy to read -- helped a great deal by the fact that he doses and presents the mental health issues in such a way as to avoid practically any part of the novel becoming a mere wallow in it (as so often happens in books with this subject-matter) -- but attentive and loving though the portraits are, gaping holes remain, and the whole feels, in the end, somewhat threadbare.
       Pinto is clearly great talent, and Em and the Big Hoom is filled with great set pieces, beautifully turned. Yet it straddles the fiction/non divide far too uneasily, Pinto neither able to commit completely to the real, nor able to let enough go for his story to take real flight as fiction.
       A lovely book, and yet not entirely successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 June 2014

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Em and the Big Hoom: Reviews: Jerry Pinto: Other books by Jerry Pinto under review:
  • Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb
Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author and journalist Jerry Pinto was born in 1966.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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