Monday, February 8, 2010

Review: Something Sinful, Suzanne Enoch

I'm feeling all kinds of rant-y today, so for your reading pleasure: A review-rant of Suzanne Enoch's Something Sinful.

Title: Something Sinful
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Publication Info: Avon, 2006
Genre: Historical Romance
Grade: F

In a nutshell, the story is about Sarala Carlisle and Shay Griffin. She's just arrived in England after living most of her life in India, and feels pretty out of place in London society. He's a stock, not-interested-in-marrying romance novel guy who succumbs to her wiles. They share an interest in commerce, and there's weak side plot about stolen/contraband imperial Chinese silks that Sarala manages to buy out from under Shay, and that eventually have to be returned. He's enticed by her beauty and commercial smarts. She's enticed by his beauty and commercial smarts. Danger is averted, the lovers unite, everything ends happily.

The romance is pretty standard. What really bothered me in Enoch's book, and what I'll now rant about, are the huge racefail/culturefails found throughout the book (I'm not even sure what kind of fail this one is, but it some many aspects just scream "wrong!" to me).

What's so wrong with the book? The main character, Sarala, self-identifies with Indian culture and feels really uncomfortable with British culture. Her name is Indian (though I'm guessing Enoch picked it off a babyname site, and chose it for its ability to be shorted to Sara in English, especially since the name is usually written Sarla and is pronounced more like Sarla than Sarala), she addresses her father in Hindi, she wears Indian clothes, etc. And almost all the details are wrong! There are actually two issues at hand that troubled me--the just plain wrong Indian material, and relationship Sarala had to India vs England.

To writers everywhere: Stop exoticizing India! Please! I'm begging you. India can be a great place, and Indians can be great people, but stop a) making it a backdrop for white people to have spiritual odysseys, and b) treating everything and everyone from there as exotic, spiritual, etc.

And, if you're going to use Indian words, phrases, clothes, what have you, get them right! Get the words transliterated correctly. The word for "father" is "pitaa," though to be honest, calling your father "pitaa" is very formal. Plus, if you're that formal, you'd probably say "pitaaji." If you're less formal, try "papa," or "bapu." Not "pati," which is what the main character of Enoch's novel calls her father. "Pati," when pronounced with a short a and dental "t," in Hindi actually means husband, and is not something you want a daughter calling her father, and when pronounced with a hard t, doesn't mean anything. This example wasn't the only Hindi misuse, but it's the one that I remember the most (and I don't have the book at hand at the moment). And while it's true that "pati" and "pita" only differ, in English transliteration, in vowel placement, there's a world of difference between the two in Hindi.

Get the clothes correct, if you're going to make a big deal about the cloths. For example, you don't wear a sari ON TOP of a salwaar kameez, as the novel's main character does at a masquerade. And, it's called a salwaar kameez. I can't remember off-hand what how Enoch spelled it, but it wasn't right, at all (salwaar kadeez, maybe). A sari is a long piece of fabric that, today, is worn with a short blouse and a petticoat, and is draped around the body, has pleats, and, in the most common way of draping it, one end of it goes over your shoulder and hangs down your back. Two hundred years ago, most women probably didn't wear petticoats with a sari (you can tell the petticoat is an introduced article of clothing, since the word in Hindi is "petticoat," though it's pronounced "payticote"), instead just a string around the waist that the sari could be tucked into, though to outward appearances, it probably would have looked much the same. A salwaar kameez is a style of clothing more popular in the north of India, and is loose trousers with a long top. You don't wear a sari with a salwaar kameez--in fact, I'm not even sure how you could. It's just too much clothing, like wearing shorts on top of jeans, or a skirt over trousers. Besides which, if you'd done much research on Indian fashions of the early 19th century, you'd probably have discovered that high class women in Delhi are more likely to be wearing long skirts with blouses and a scarf, called ghagra choonis or langhas, or a version of salwaar kameez where the kameez is fitted to the waist and then flairs out into a knee-length to floor-length wide skirt, and pants that are tight and long enough that they gather in folds at the ankle. Anyway, I'm willing to accept that Indian fashions of two hundred years ago are difficult to research, but don't get them plain wrong!

And to Enoch: Do you realize how ridiculous it is that your main character identifies with India and Indian culture to the exclusion of English culture? That's actually weird and sad, that she feels so disconnected from her own heritage. This aspect of the novel, the strange disconnect the main character felt to English culture, really troubled me. As a psychological problem, it's very interesting, though this novel didn't explore that problem. I didn't feel like there was close to enough exploration of what had led to identify so closely to Indian culture (laying aside for the moment that Indian culture is not monolithic, and so there's not really any one "Indian culture" for Sarala to identify with).

Also, I got really tired of the repeated descriptions of how exotic and tanned the heroine was. First of all, growing up in India isn't going to make an Englishwoman look more Indian. She might get more tanned--although, really, the voyage back to England took months, and even the most persistent tan is going to fade over the course of months--but her skin won't be permanently a different color. And--let's retire "exotic" as a descriptive word.

As I'm sure is becoming increasingly evident, I had a hard time engaging with the story, as I could not get past how a slipshod use of Indian culture was being used to exoticize the heroine. But even if all the Indian details had been right, I couldn't get past the heroine's bizarre insistence on identifying with India, with little explanation or examination of why and how that had developed. That kind of identification with a culture not your own is weird to me at the best of time (Trustafarian, anyone?), but in a historical, colonial setting, not only really weird, but just disturbing. It's historically incredibly unlikely, and for me as a reader today, it's problematic for the colonial and imperial overtones of why Sarala and her family were in India in the first place.

The romance on its own, dissociated for the culture stuff, was probably a C, but with the culturefail and historyfail, it was, for me, and F.

p.s. I got the book from the library.

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