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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


One Part Woman

Perumal Murugan

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To purchase One Part Woman

Title: One Part Woman
Author: Perumal Murugan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Tamil
Availability: One Part Woman - US
One Part Woman - UK
One Part Woman - Canada
One Part Woman - India
Zur Hälfte eine Frau - Deutschland
  • Tamil title: மாதொருபாகன
  • Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective, quite well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 25/7/2019 Meena Kandasamy
The NY Times . 17/10/2018 Parul Sehgal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/10/2018 Laila Lalami

  From the Reviews:
  • "Muruganís unsurpassed ability to capture Tamil speech lays bare the complex organism of the society he adeptly portrays (.....) Aniruddhan Vasudevanís idiomatic translation preserves the mood of the original, and serves as a constant linguistic reminder that, as readers in English, we are but visitors to this realistic pre-independence Tamil world." - Meena Kandasamy, The Guardian

  • "For all the commotion it caused, it feels shockingly tame. (...) At times, Vasudevan capably conveys the distinctiveness not only of Tamil but the language of a farming people (.....) But too often Vasudevan resorts to bland, anachronistic English clichés" - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Throughout the novel, Murugan pits the individual against the group. How far are you willing to go, he asks, in order to belong ? Most people in the village do whatís expected of them (.....) As the story unfolds, Kali and Ponna must choose between private satisfaction and public approval. (...) Muruganís descriptions of village life are evocative, but the true pleasure of this book lies in his adept explorations of male and female relationships, and in his unmistakable affection for people who find themselves pitted against the world." - Laila Lalami, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       The husband and wife at the center of One Part Woman are Kaliyannan (called Kali) and Ponnayi (Ponna). Ponna is the sister of Kali's childhood friend, Muthu; they married when she was sixteen. The novel opens a dozen years later, with Kali and Ponna still very much in love, and quite happy as a couple and with the life they've made. Since the early days of their marriage, however, one dark cloud has hovered over them: they have remained childless. One Part Woman explores how this has affected them -- from how others, both family and strangers, see and treat them, to their own feelings and frustrations about this -- and eventually leads to the drastic final attempt to remedy the situation that they are goaded and maneuvered into.
       One Part Woman is set in rural India, in an indistinct time, still during the period of British colonial rule; other than mention of 'talkies' (movies with sound) and cement, there's barely any indication of more modern technology (cars, electricity), giving the book an almost timeless feel -- as indeed the story could be set almost any time in the past few centuries. (The one reference that does narrow the possible dates -- mention of the 1945 film Sri Valli, starring Kumari Rukmini -- feels almost too modern, yet it's entirely realistic that in this world-unto-itself there's almost no notice of the independence movement or the Second World War.)
       The story frequently shifts back to earlier times, scenes from their marriage and even before. Ponna and Kali are presented as a devoted, loving couple, though there are tensions in their marriage. The most serious one is that of all the outside pressure: among the obvious solutions to their not having a child is for Kali to take a second wife. Ponna worries quite a bit about that possibility -- and Kali gently teases her about that -- but it's not really something Kali wants to consider. Adoption, too, is not seen as particularly viable alternative.
       Childlessness marks both husband and wife, but Ponna suffers more because of it. Repeatedly across the years she perceives herself as humiliated by how she is treated because she has not had any children -- "The humiliations she had had to suffer because of this one problem were endless" --; she is also seen as bad luck -- as though she is tainted -- and this complicates her interaction with others, and especially with children. Kali can more easily distract himself with his work -- he keeps busy -- and sometimes alcohol, but the female identity and purpose is so closely associated with motherhood that Ponna seems to be confronted by what everyone perceives as her failure at every turn.
       Ponna and Kali will try almost anything to have a child -- "The goal was to beget a child, and she was ready to do anything to attain that goal" --; of course, in this world (time, place) they inhabit there are no (genuine) medical solutions (indeed, none are considered) and all they can do is turn to superstition:

     In the matter of offering prayers, Kali and Ponna left no stone unturned. They did not discriminate between small and big temples. They promised an offering to every god they encountered. For the forest gods, it was a goat sacrifice. For the temple gods, it was pongal. For some gods, the promises even doubled. If a child were indeed born, the rest of their lives would be spent in fulfilling these promises. Kali, in fact, was ready to forgo his cattle and all that he had saved with his incredible frugality, if only their prayers would bear fruit. But no god seemed to pay heed.
       They and others also wonder whether their childlessness is rooted in an older sin, deeds by previous generations that they are now being punished for, such as the way the money was obtained that allowed for the purchase of some of the land they own (which Ponna suggests selling as atonement).
       Meanwhile, at least one other relative, the unmarried Uncle Nallayyan, is an example to them of how to stand up against the bullying pressure of relatives, his attitude and willingness to do as he pleases, even when it is frowned upon by the community, at least a small inspiration and consolation.
       Perumal presents the story well, in short chapters, moving back and forth between present and past events. The scenes of village life, now and in the past, and of the interactions among the various people, especially in handling the subject of childlessness, are simple but evocative. The repeated variations on cruelty, accidental and intentional, by others -- and Ponna's tendency to lash out, and to withdraw -- can be a bit much; they are, of course, also somewhat frustrating for contemporary readers, for whom the injustice of how Kali and especially Ponna are treated is even more obvious and disturbing. Scenes of gentle humor and genuine affection throughout add a welcome additional dimension to the portrayals and the action, with the closer circle of family always (if sometimes misguidedly) supportive, which allows Perumal to present a more nuanced picture than the sometimes too starkly black-and-white confrontations found elsewhere.
       The novel builds towards one previously not considered option, as both mother and mother-in-law get together -- itself practically unheard of -- and the childless couple is nudged and maneuvered towards one last desperate try: a grand local festival culminates always in its eighteenth day, when the gods go back up the hill -- and the usual prohibitions don't apply, allowing for a sexual free-for-all; they suggest Ponna should go, and let herself be impregnated by a stranger ..... The thinking and theory is that it's not like she would be sleeping with another man: "All men who set their foot in Karattur on the eighteenth day are gods", and so she would be sleeping with the equivalent of a divinity. As a young man, Kali even participated in this bacchanal -- a way for young men to gain experience -- but it's generally not something any married man would consider for his wife to participate in: "Which man would say yes to such a thing ?" Kali wonders as soon as his mother makes the suggestion.
       Awkwardly, the couple considers it -- and in their desperation Kali is unable to say what he truly wants (that she doesn't do it). Kali is bothered: "No one seemed to have even an iota of hesitation", while Ponna wants Kali to put his foot down -- but can't convey to him that's what she wants. He, in turn, is hurt by her not refusing outright.
       The festival is a long time in coming, and this awful plan hangs over them all the while. Eventually, the festival comes around, and the family maneuvers the young couple to see to it that things unfold the way they should ..... Perumal builds up the tension slowly, across much of the novel -- the plan is hatched fairly on already -- and there are opportunities for the couple to go another way ..... Even when Ponna eventually finds herself on the hill, she reaches a point where there are literally: "four paths ahead of her" to choose from. But the sense of catastrophe coming is hard to dispel.
       It makes for an effective tale, a fine tragedy-in-the-making novel in which, despite the shadow of childlessness and the looming-ever-larger seemingly inevitable ending, the couple is a genuinely happy and joyful one, which Perumal captures nicely. It's the side-bits, the parts of the story that aren't so centered on their childless conditions and the consequences of how they are seen and treated because of it, that are especially successful -- as is then also the final descent (even as it is in part up-hill ...), husband and wife separately navigating that final night.
       Parts of the story are a bit simplistic and reductive, as are some of the reactions and writing ("The sex that night was the worst they had ever had"), but mostly it's a rich story that presents a community and individuals' roles, positions, and expectations in it well without over-explaining anything. One Part Woman is an effective and affecting human story, and a fine novel.

       One Part Woman did gain considerable notoriety, with protests about the depiction of religion in it, ugliness and unpleasantness that, for a while, got out of hand (and led to, temporarily, Perumal's withdrawal from the writing-life). Fortunately, cooler and more sensible heads seem to have now prevailed.
       Perumal has also since written two promising-sounding sequels to the novel, now also available in English (though not yet in US/UK editions) as A Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence, which explore alternate outcomes to the events of One Part Woman; one hopes all three will eventually (soon) be published together.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 January 2019

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One Part Woman: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Perumal Murugan (பெருமாள் முருகன்) was born in 1966.

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© 2019 the complete review

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