I’m honestly not sure what to make of The Painted Ocean. I’m almost afraid to criticise it, in case I show my ignorance by failing to pick up on what may go down as a great literary allegory—but I just didn’t get it.
For the first half of the book, you’d be forgiven for reading The Painted Ocean as a YA novel. It begins as a racially-charged Tracy Beaker story, with 11-year-old Shruti being taken into care as her family falls apart.
It’s no surprise that Shruti latches onto the only other Asian girl at her school; Meena may be manipulative and selfish, but she also shields Shruti from racist bullies, and offers to help her get home to her mother. It’s not even surprising that Shruti’s obsession with Meena lasts through university, or even that Shruti is convinced to set off with Meena on a holiday to India that was obviously never going to end well. But it is surprising when, half-way through the novel, a sudden act of violence catapults the story into surreal and dangerous territory that will have you wondering if you accidentally picked up Lord of the Flies instead.
I really liked The Painted Ocean‘s first half. It was a sad and fascinating glimpse into the experience of Indian families in the UK—one which, according the book’s acknowledgements, has been well-researched by the author. I loved that it made me question my perspective. When Shruti’s domineering uncle comes over from India and bullies Shruti’s mother into remarrying all for the sake of the family’s izzat, it’s tempting to gasp at the brutality of Indian culture and its treatment of women. But Packard humbled me with a brilliant passage that ended with this stark truth: “different countries have different ideas about what’s good and what’s evil, which everyone here pretends they understand but really they think that brown people’s ideas of good and evil are primitive compared to white people’s.”
A lot of people were annoyed at the novel’s overuse of the word “and”; the word begins literally every sentence, with the rare exceptions of sentences beginning “but”, “so” or “plus”. But this didn’t actually bother me (as long as I didn’t focus on it), and I think it’s what propelled me through this 400-page book in just a couple of hours. With a combination of urgent prose and a startling plot, the reader is hurtled through the story—and there’s no denying it: I was hooked.
The exploration of Indian culture within the UK was, to me, so much more interesting than the over-dramatic second half—so I was sad not to delve further into that. And then there’s the fact that the second half was just so implausible. Was it an allegory? Maybe, but I needed it to work as a narrative as well—instead of veering dangerously close to torture porn with its sudden and unlikely extremes. One eyebrow remained firmly in the air pretty much through the entire second half.
Towards the very end, Packard seemed to be making some confusing claims about fiction that I couldn’t quite follow. He seemed to be justifying his right as a white man to write the story of an Indian girl—something which I hadn’t particularly been disputing until his defensive stance changed my mind. I think an author has the right to tell whatever story they want to tell, but Packard’s claims that he could write this story as authentically as an Indian woman, without being culturally arrogant, rather got my heckles up. Then again, I did like what he said about the stories of POC being “taken away…by a bunch of white people and turned into something that [they] don’t want it to be”, so it’s possible that I totally misread his point here. As I say, it was a little confusing.
I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading The Painted Ocean (if only to see where Packard could possibly take this story), but I don’t think I could quite bring myself to recommend it to anybody else—at least, not until I understand what any of it was supposed to mean.
The Painted Ocean is on sale in the UK from today.
*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.