Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Book Review - Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

The blurbs on the back cover of Song of Kali assured me that Dan Simmons’ first novel would both horrify and terrify me. In truth, it did neither, though I’m not sorry I read the book and would recommend it to others. I thought the book was very well written for a first novel (Simmons has greatly improved, though), and it held my interest throughout. Okay, almost throughout.

The parts of Song of Kali that didn’t hold my interest were the parts that were supposed to terrify. Instead of finding them terrifying, I found them mildly annoying, and they were the only parts of the book that I skimmed.

Song of Kali, for the most part, takes place in Calcutta, India, which must have left a very unfavorable impression on Dan Simmons, to say the least. Song of Kali is, above all, a highly atmospheric novel, and it’s the negative aspects of Calcutta (and India) on which Simmons chooses to concentrate. I must say, he did an excellent job of bringing them to life. I could feel the oppressive, humid heat, smell the fetid air, and see the dire poverty. It’s the atmosphere of Song of Kali that will remain with me long after I’ve forgotten the details of the story.

Song of Kali is the story of New Hampshire poet, Robert Luczak, his Indian born wife, Amrita, and their six-month-old daughter, Victoria. When Robert’s offered an “all expenses paid” assignment to Calcutta to find and interview the Bengali poet, M. Das, Robert can’t refuse even though his longtime friend and colleague, Abe Bronstein urges him to do just that. And fearing he’ll need a translator while in India, Robert takes Amrita along, even though she’s not Bengali and doesn’t speak or understand the dialect. Even more puzzling is the fact that Robert and Amrita decide to take Victoria to Calcutta with them. Who would take, I wondered, a six-month old child to Calcutta, especially not knowing what, exactly was in store for him (or her)?

Robert’s adventure, and it is an adventure, in India is interesting and ultimately tragic, even if I didn’t find it horrifying in the sense that one would expect. The things that was horrifying about Song of Kali weren’t the things that readers of genre horror would expect to find. What was horrifying about this book is that many of the things that happened to Robert and Amrita Luczak in Calcutta could happen to any of us.

As I wrote previously, Song of Kali was very well written, especially for a first novel. I got a little annoyed with Robert’s penchant for calling his wife “kiddo” so much of the time, especially when it was obvious that of the two of them, it was Amrita who possessed maturity and good sense (with the exception of taking a baby to Calcutta, that is).

I don’t think Simmons meant for Robert to come off as a self-centered, idiotic boor, but that’s exactly how I perceived him. While I could sympathize with Amrita in everything but her choice of husbands, I couldn’t stand Robert, though this certainly didn’t ruin the book for me at all. This is a plot driven book, and it was the story that kept me turning the pages, not the characters.

While I was satisfied with the ending of the book, I felt Simmons tried a little too hard to tie up every loose end. I honestly felt the book would have been better and more terrifying if Simmons had let some of those loose ends dangle and left room for some ambiguity.

I read Simmons’ twenty-fifth and most recent novel, Drood prior to reading Song of Kali. While Song of Kali showcases an author with much promise, Drood shows just how far that author has progressed and mastered his craft, especially in terms of character development and intricate plotting.

I recommend Song of Kali, but not to anyone looking for a genre horror novel. Don’t read it thinking you’re going to be scared. Don’t read it and expect to be enlightened about what it means to be human. Read it for the interesting story it is, and most of all, for its intense atmosphere. If you do that, I don’t think it will disappoint.


Recommended: Yes, for those looking for a plot driven novel, without a lot of depth.