20. ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ by V.S. Naipaul

I’m not sure what made me pick up A House for Mr Biswas. It’s been on my shelf for years, looking big, intimidating and not particularly inspiring. But pick it up I did, and I found it to be a thoroughly absorbing saga of the unintentional life of a man in Trinidad.

Everything seems to happen to Mr Biswas sort of by accident. He is born unlucky and told that he must stay away from bodies of water, and try never to sneeze. Unfortunately, when he disobeys these rules (and probably because the rules exist in the first place) he inadvertently causes the death of his father. This self-fulfilling prophecy, like many others, leads him into a life that sort of sweeps him along and never lets him catch his breath.

a house for mr biswas

This novel is populated by lots of richly drawn characters. Mr Biswas gets drawn into the chaotic and huge Tulsi family: he marries one of the daughters, Shama, again sort of by accident, and struggles to accept the lifestyle in which he finds himself. Ultimately, as per the title, Mr Biswas’ life goal is to own a house of his own, but his dream is defied at every turn by scheming in-laws, more and more children and, of course, extreme poverty. During his life he tries to buy and build properties, but he usually ends up living back with the Tulsis, and hating every second of it.

There’s a lot of humour in A House for Mr Biswas, mainly pointed at Mr Biswas himself and his constant disappointments. Still, the reader has to feel sympathetic towards him: we see how he struggles and how he gets stuck, how he falls into depression and how he picks himself up and carries on. The book is divided into sections which correspond to the different houses in which Mr Biswas lives. We know from the start that he will end up in a house of his own (albeit a terrible one) and that he will die there, but knowing the ending doesn’t mean the rest of the novel isn’t worthwhile. What seems like a minor achievement at the start, becomes the culmination of a lifetime of struggles and setbacks by the end. You’re cheering for Mr Biswas, even though you know it’ll all come to nowt.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did. It took a very long time to read, but I never felt that it dragged. Naipaul is a masterful storyteller who draws you into his characters and makes you want to stay with them (although, believe me, you’d never want to live with them).

“Time would never be dismissed again … every action was a part of his life which could not be recalled; therefore thought had to be given to every action.”

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

4 Comments on “20. ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ by V.S. Naipaul

  1. I remember reading this quite a long time ago and thinking it a charming and funny read, although it’s not actually a very cheery subject.

    • [EDIT: D’oh, replied to the wrong comment!]

      Yes, exactly, he sort of addresses tragedy with humour :)

  2. I had this one my maybe-one-day list for ages, then Naipaul said all those awful things about women not being able to write, and it kinda put me off… even though I should separate author from work, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    • Wow, I didn’t know that! Did a quick Google and came up with this: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/02/vs-naipaul-jane-austen-women-writers

      I guess if he’s been told he’s the “greatest living writer of English prose” he probably doesn’t think anyone is his match, but that’s a pretty low blow at all women writers. :(

      I thought ‘Biswas’ was enjoyable and well-written, but by no means did it blow my head off with how good it was. Plenty of other men and women writers have done that instead!

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