The Nine Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat is a series of word pictures which traces the life of a young woman. Each chapter has a different narrator, and each one of them tell us about the young woman who passed through their life, leaving behind the faint perfume of memories and the bitterness of loss. There are nine voices in this book, but one person is featured twice since his life intersects twice with the protagonist. The story takes us through different cities, unnamed yet familiar. The life of the narrators forms the canvas on which the protagonist comes alive.
The book starts with the art teacher who taught the young woman as a child. From there it proceeds through the thoughts of friends and lovers. Each person is eager to share their memories, to talk about the young woman, who leaves each one of them equally perplexed. Each chapter holds an account of love and loss. The thoughts of the narrators reveal a protagonist whose life is a constant quest for love, to fill the vacant space in her heart. She is disappointed time and again by the people in whom she searches for that love. Her first loss is her parents’ love.
Each chapter is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces join together in unexpected ways, which seems strange to the eye but a later chapter reveals information which helps us make sense of that anomaly. The protagonist is like a mirage; the closer people get to her she disappears. She seems to be constantly seeking love in different kinds of relationships, that of a friend, lover, confidant, protector. Each chapter is the point of view of a different person, those who loved her and those she loved. And by denying them names the author has kept the spotlight firmly on the young woman. I felt excited at the beginning of each chapter in anticipation of what would be revealed about the protagonist’s life. The narrators view themselves as integral parts of her life, while in actuality they remain mere spectators. The different narrators talk about their relationship with the young woman, but her voice is never heard. Through their words she comes to life; as a person of few words, her actions precise and controlled. But in sharp contrast to her persona, her life takes its own path.
Janice’s prose is beautiful and subtle. She’s adept at crafting scenes with stark descriptions that reveal more than the most elaborate illustration would. The first thing I noticed about the narrative was the beauty in its simplicity. This in turn made the story quite gripping. I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall, a silent witness to the characters living out their roles. She creates the most wonderful atmosphere with the bare minimum words. So our attention is focused on the characters and not the setting. There’s a comfort in her words which pulled me right into the story. She skilfully peels back layers and reveals hidden facets which in turn provides a clarity to the tale unfolding in our mind. How beautifully she joins the dots to take the story forward. A hint dropped in an initial chapter is skilfully taken up later and joined to yet another thread. When it’s all brought together the result is magic.
I get a couple of favourite lines from each book that I read. This one is my favourite from the Nine Chambered Heart.“I am struck, at this moment, by how precisely we know how to hurt the ones we love.” I just couldn’t get this sentence out of my head even after I had completed reading it. The accuracy of the sentence is what got to me.
My favourite account was that of the art teacher ; the origami and paper cranes were incredibly haunting. “They say folding a thousand cranes will grant you a wish. I wonder what it is you’ve wished for. I hope so much it will come true.”
The Nine Chambered Heart is Janice’s third book and it has whetted my desire to read her earlier works.