It is interesting that Janice Pariat’s latest novel suggests that falling in love is easy. In The Nine Chambered Heart, one must add, it is easy when the object of affection can be moulded into what the lover wishes to see and no more. The premise of this book is brilliant: exploring a woman through the memories of men.
It is also redundant as men write most history, and the female gender has been explored through their post-mortem gaze for generations. A most recent, if entirely different example, is the runaway Bollywood hit Padmavat: so revered by its male director and so deplored by many women who saw the horror it glorified. Pariat’s book, however, is like an antithesis of this trend. The reader may never really know ‘You’ — the deceased protagonist. Her life is not revealed so as much as the fantasies that have been forced upon her by the men who think they knew her.
A writer of prose as well as poetry, Pariat’s sentences are beautiful. They’re the hybrid children of modern free verse poetry and the lyricism of old-school writers such as Thoreau. The latter’s influence is almost a ghostly presence as one explores all Nine Chambers of The Heart.
It wouldn’t be surprising if people mistook this to be a book about love or desire. It is neither. This is an honest complication of how we see and remember one another — as accurate as memories can get in any case. After all, there is no vault for memories, no safe house. In some sense, all recollections are false. So it is no surprise that the men in Pariat’s novel remember the woman whom they only knew as extensions of themselves.
One of the men, The Florist, describes the crux of Pariat’s book to perfection: “How can I tell you this is not loving? It isn’t and cannot be.” It’s a momentary act of association, in a world so full of the notion of communication and so little idea of real connections. And in such a world, is it a surprise that all we learn about ‘You’ is from the moments she occupied in the lives of these men? Or that they express desires, as romantic as they may seem to some, that are about You but actually for themselves.
Take for example this line: “And you, you are perfect… Silently, I hope you’ll always stay this way, which you will remain intact.” God forbid You ever falls prey to a disease that’ll eat away at this flawlessness he describes. And yet, for this character, this selfishness is well-intentioned love.
Through the book, there are numerous references to You’s quiet nature. And a less discerning reader might assume this means she is a reticent person. But any woman will be able to tell you that it is hard to get a word in edgewise in the company of men. This is especially so when they’re “in love” with you.
The Nine Chambered Heart is a beautiful and harsh book. Gorgeous because Pariat can draw poetry into her prose; harsh because it highlights the selfishness of perceived love and desire — or infatuation in a lullaby-like manner. It brings you in with its beauty, as does every first encounter with romance, and then slowly introduces you to a world and memories that have always been selfish realms. As a reader, I’m glad. To pretend otherwise would have made this nothing but a sad, boring book.