This is a stunning novel. I can’t remember the last time I used that adjective in regards to a book, but it’s the only one that can accurately fit it. The story is bold, truthful, and compelling. It’s fictional but might as well represent the thousands of young girls and women that struggle in a fight between cultural duties and personal needs. Certain instances rang very true to my own life, and usually I hate books like that. I read for escapism, knowledge, and to fuel my imagination; being reminded of my own life is not something that pleases me in a book. Here however, there was enough distance that I could understand and sympathize while at the same time wondering if everything would turn out all right. In case you don’t wish to read the rest of this post now, let me just say it here: Gurjinder Basran’s Everything Was Goodbye is absolutely worth a read. Perhaps more than once.
Meena’s story is broken into four parts: One for Loss, Two for Sorrow, Three for Love, Four for Tomorrow. Each part represents a different age for her. The book starts with Meena in high school and continues to find her in her early thirties. I wasn’t sure how I would enjoy that, but the transitions are so smooth that I never once felt a bump. Her strong yet vulnerable personality stretches across the pages like a sweet melody.
Meena comes from a very Punjabi society. Her mother refuses to speak in English, despite having lived in Canada for over thirty years. Her sisters have all succumbed to lives of arranged marriages and servile domesticity. For Meena, it seems as though there is no other choice. She lives to please outwardly, while on the inside she struggles constantly with hating her own identity and wishing for everything to be different. There were times when I understood Meena better than I ever would have understood her or myself at our high school ages, as we both struggled to show the world–and more importantly, our families–who we really were, without bearing the disappointment of anyone.
I won’t delve deep into the characters or the plot line because I firmly believe that this is a story that everyone should explore for themselves. At times, I wondered how the book could ever become famous among people that weren’t Indian and that didn’t understand the necessity of certain customs and oddities that are ingrained in our society. As I put it down, I realize that every society has these issues. Family expectations, a struggle to find out who you really are as an individual, the need to please, the need to fit in, the need to become your own person–we’ve all gone through it, Indian or otherwise. It also helped me learn that “coming of age” isn’t a phase that occurs during high school. Coming of age stays with us as we grow from our teens to twenties to thirties and over. We’re constantly learning more about our impulses, making harder decisions, and ever-struggling to let ourselves live to the fullest. So really, this is a novel for every girl and woman that I can think of.
I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Gurjinder Basran at a Wine and Cheese event hosted by Penguin Group Canada and Chatelaine Books.
We had a lovely group discussion about Everything Was Goodbye and it was followed up with some more private chats. She stressed throughout that this was not a novel about herself, although some characteristics between her family and Meena’s might be similar. The novel still felt so real to me, that I couldn’t thinking of Meena as a real person and admiring how brave she was for putting pen to paper and being so honest. There are many things from my teenage years and my own ‘coming of age’ that I would love to purge myself of and put on paper. The truth is, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. So whether it was Gurjinder living out some part of her that was previously unexplored in her imagination, or just Meena coming alive to write her story, I admire the bravery of truth and the poetic beauty of her confusion and honesty. I admire the fact that she recognized the fears she held for her own doubts and rebellious thoughts, and decided to bare them for the world to read regardless. It’s simple but beautifully written.
“The smell of chai–fennel, cloves and cinnamon–tucked me into my blanket like a seed in a cardamom pod. I steeped myself into the warmth of waking, listening to the sounds of Sunday morning.” Gurjinder began her reading with that sentence and I was hooked instantly. I was and still am always fascinated by sounds, smells, and colours, wishing I had a way to record every bit of it in words. This opening line drew me back into distant memories so quickly that the air around me became thick with them. That’s the beauty of her writing. So steep yourself into the warmth of this book and recognize the importance of not being afraid of yourself while learning to balance who you are socially and who you are inside.