Crossed and Knotted Book Review: The unique experience of reading separate stories woven together to form an intricate tapestry.
When was the last time I had read a short story cycle or a collection of closely linked stories where the narratives were arranged to create a uniquely different and edifying literary experience? Sifting through the pages of Crossed and Knotted, published by Readomania, I discovered the pleasures of reading a composite novel – the first such attempt in Indian writing in English. I savored the unique experience of reading separate stories woven together to form an intricate tapestry. Each individual story had been as enticing as discovering the connection between them. Reading the book was equivalent to stumbling excitedly across a rich and diverse kaleidoscope of human emotions.
In classic English literature, we have a few remarkable examples of fiction where disjointed tales have been grouped together into fragments which are connected meaningfully, beginning with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the early nineteenth century, we see apparently dissociated stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Those are narrated by child protagonists and also by progressively older people, all of them coming together in the end to form a unifying thesis on Joyce’s idea of his epiphany or his life-altering self-illumination.
Later, in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (1953), in the Nobel prize-winning Lives of Girls and Women (1971) by Alice Munroe and also in the recent Pulitzer-prize winning ‘A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain’ (1992) by Robert Olen Butler, we experience a cycle of richly narrated stories chronicling the life of a single protagonist or narrated by multiple narrators to unfold greater truths about society and humanity.
In the book The Composite Novel: The Short Story Cycle in Transition’, the authors Maggie Dunn and Ann R. Morris have stated that the composite novel can be defined as a literary form where shorter texts, individually complete and autonomous, are interrelated in a coherent role. They reflect on its 200 year-old history starting from its humble origins of village sketch traditions to the more experimental narratives of the nineteenth century English authors. They also add that this flexible form, which welcomes multiple perspectives of thinking and narration has also been criticized and misunderstood as a literary genre. However, they strongly argue that this rich form and genre has produced literary masterpieces, especially by nineteenth century women writers who produced them as more creative alternatives to linear narratives, while expanding the limits of literature.
In Readomania’s composite novel Crossed and Knotted, the fourteen different writers were well faced with the challenges of achieving a unique feat while creating a well-balanced storyline that comes together like a rainbow. They had to juggle with the individual characters, events, settings and emotions of their individual stories, very much in line with their literary predecessors. However, what we see in effect is the experience of tying and untying a beautifully created knot, with the separate strands of unique and seemingly disparate stories. In other words, we explore the formation of a braid, which is meticulously tied with each and every individual story that is complete in itself, yet connected with the story that follows, ultimately giving the book its multiple layers and nuances.
The unmistakable appeal of the book lies in its smooth dexterity in the way the stories weave in and out, connecting one narrative to the other with a distinctive flavor of storytelling of each individual author. As we journey through the pages, we see how each and every individual author follows the mammoth task of taking cues from the previous story and adds a narrative of his/her own with a unique dimension to it. In this exciting and unforgettable roller-coaster journey, readers are amazed to explore the revelations and suspense unfolding in various layers of each individual story. A story ends and the next one begins. The process of tying the individual stories becomes an even more intriguing and complex task for the writers due to the challenging diversity of the settings, spanning cities, countries and continents, and the vast expanse of the timeline as the characters grow from infants to adults and older.
In the first story of the cycle, ‘A Curious Dalliance’ by Sutapa Basu, we see the vulnerability and deep, psychotic layers of Sudip Ray when his wife Megha dies a painful death behind the bolted doors of the hospital room. While he becomes a passive onlooker surrendering to the inevitability of his wife’s death, the narrative takes a reverse leap, going back years in time. The flashback leads to Sudip’s marriage to Megha and the years that followed conveying the gripping tension and conflict in his life that pushed him to the point of making deliberate, life-changing choices.
The undercurrent of tension intensifies with the second story ‘The Diary of Joseph Varughese’. The storyline fast-forwards a few years when Sudip’s grown up daughter Shivi flips through the pages of a mysterious diary that has unknown, unidentified roots. The stories that follow, including ‘The Web of Life’, the eerie and intriguing ‘The Real Fiction of Illiana Braun’, and ‘A Burning Candle’ take curious turns and bends, in a mission to discover and explore the roots of the diary and to identify the missing links of the overarching plot and sub-plots. In the stories, each of the characters and their interpersonal connections are established through vividly descriptive scenes, unfurling the deep-rooted human emotions of love, betrayal, dilemma, courage, hope and resilience.
The plethora of characters are neatly etched out including Sudip, his daughter Shivi, her journalist friend Siya, Siya’s American friend Catherine, the mysterious Illiana Braun, the tormented Jamila and her daughter Ruksana, the vivacious Dimpy, the star-crossed couple Aditya and Meena. These characters develop and evolve over the course of the entire novel through an extremely creative and collaborative process.
The stories that follow branch out in different scattered directions, sometimes defying temporal linearity. The narrative jumps back and forth in time across the expansive Lodhi Gardens in Delhi and the war-ravaged Afghanistan, from the air crashes in Southern India to the devastating bomb blasts in Mumbai that rip apart the hopes of living rewriting the destiny of an individual in another city, as he forges newer connections.
Towards the end, we come close to identifying the queer and unique twists and turns in the plot. We also discover that the conflicts brought out to the surface in the beginning are resolved in the final story, ‘The Last Act’. Here, Sudip, the protagonist of the first story is confronted with the demons of his past and also with the characters in his present life, who form a mosaic to bring him closer to his catharsis and his salvation.
When the first story of ‘Crossed and Knotted’ unfolds, hardly do we have any idea how it will connect with the next story and then the next. But the chain continues to unfold an emotional, wonder-filled tapestry of fourteen different stories. On reaching the final story that intersperses with the narrative of the first story, we discover the complexities and intrigue of memorable storytelling. The appeal lies not only in its unique language and storyline, but also in the complex, tangled and multilayered plots and sub-plots that convey to the readers the deepest, darkest secrets of the characters, all of whom are real, humane, vulnerable and agile at the same time. The characters, entangled with each other beyond seemingly benign and expected connections, trudge their journeys through humane, tragic and enthralling life experiences. Alongside, the narrative crisscrosses across countries, generations and the most importantly, time, the most fluid entity.
The publisher of the book, Readomania had started off as a social networking platform for budding authors and discerning readers; as a vibrant community of authors, editors sharing stories and poems; and exploring creative talent from around the world. In their website, they not only publish quality content edited and structured by the team of editors, but also promote the spirit of collaborative writing, publish book reviews & previews and author interactions, and also run contests on short stories, book giveaways, slogan writing and anthologies.
With the successful launch of their first print publication ‘Chronicle of Urban Nomads’, Readomania had made an impressive foray in the domain of literature and storytelling. With their second publication ‘Crossed and Knotted’, they intend to take their literary initiative one step further. In the coming days, we would be looking forward to more of their ventures compiling good stories, intelligent and unique narrations, in the process, nurturing the emerging stars of the literary world.
The editor of this unique, collaborative collection, Sutapa Basu and the group of fourteen immensely talented storytellers definitely deserve a standing ovation for creating a novel-like reading experience out of a surprising and delectable blend of interconnected stories.
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