Novel, “Penance” by Ben Antao
Publisher Goan Observer, Goa, India
Soft cover, 329 Pages
I have just finished reading the Canadian novel, “Penance” by Canadian Goan author Ben Antao and published by Goan Observer, Panjim, Goa, India.
It’s too bad the North American publishers still shy away from Goan novels and novelists. I am sure if Rohinton Mistry had submitted this novel to Alfred Knopf or any other big name publishers, it would have been published. But Rohinton has not yet published any Canadian based novel so far, a fact not ignored by his Canadian critics.
Author Ben Antao has succeeded in his first foray into a mainstream Canadian novel. The fact that Ben has based this novel on a more than familiar Catholic way of life and the fact that he is married to his Canadian born wife and also the fact that he worked as a professional high school teacher in Toronto, has all worked very well for him in his portrayal of the Canadian Catholic teachers’ intricate way of life in this Canadian novel. As a result the ethnic novelist leaves no stone unturned in making it a full fledged Canadian novel, and not an ethnic one.
This novel is well written with some lively scenes, flashbacks, monologues, a keen human observation and a precise narrative. The book has been well edited. The novel is just about 60,000 words, a little too short for a full fledged novel, and the reader ends up wanting for more. But the author makes up for this by using double line spacing, which makes the book much easier and faster to read and also makes it 329 pages long.
The first part of the novel follows the pattern indicated on the book’s blurb, as the author uncovers the background of his characters with his typical show-and-tell craft, which most modern novelists adhere to. The second part is lot more interesting and as the novel comes almost to an unexpected end, it holds the reader’s undivided attention so much so that you can’t possibly put the book down as the tragic end just bowls you over.
The author employs so much of his Catholic religious belief and doctrine in his writing as the novel progresses and regresses with flash-backs and transitions and taking us back to the sixties, that it almost looks like you are reading Bible at times, replete with visuals of existence of God and some explicit sex thrown in, all at the same time and on the same page. The imagery used in this novel, especially the conservative way of life of all the characters, who happen to be staunchly Catholic, and who eventually become teachers, shapes up a real world full of living colours.
The author skillfully puts all pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together in the story and switches between characters seamlessly and makes transitions very easy on the reader. I must point out I had a little hard time figuring out the timeline of the story though. The book is heavy on emotions, except in one case where I was certainly looking forward to a really emotive meeting between the father and his young son, who longed to see his father after a long separation from his mother, but unfortunately the author missed a great opportunity to quench the reader’s thirst for this sensational reunion. But the end is completely captivating and suspenseful, and makes up for all the logical sequences in the first part. I found all four characters to be too
perceptive of each other, a fact not too common in real life.
All the scenes are eloquently accomplished, complete with minute details such as the facial and body features and even the clothes, the deportment and demeanor of each character. Sean’s (the son) character, which was more conspicuous by its absence in the first half, figures prominently at the very end. The morality of the story may not have much bearing or relevance in today’s modern times, but it did occupy a pride of place in the Catholic society right up to the sixties, and brings lots of nostalgia to those who lived through those innocent times.
After reading this novel, if you are a true believer in the Roman Catholic Church, you will never look at the opposite sex in a luscivious way, especially if you are married or committed, else you would have to pay for your dear life with grave consequences as depicted in this novel. Ultimately, no matter what you believe in, you will have to pay for your sins. There is no free lunch. Like they say in Goa “Korit to Bogit”. And pay you must, either now or later, as the title aptly says it all, through
I loved this novel!
Silviano C. Barbosa, Author of the novel, “The Sixth Night”