The Girl Who Couldn’t Love
by Shinie Antony
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books (2017)
Shinie Antony’s novel “The Girl Who Couldn’t Love” begins its journey in a deceptively languid tone- just when the reader thinks they know everything they possibly could, the rug gets pulled right out from under their feet. The books could be categorised into several genres- romance, erotica, mystery but perhaps the label of psychological thriller is the most apt. With its intensely moody atmosphere and crisp pacing, the book surprises you with its wit and humour. To say that this book did not head where I thought it was going is a gross understatement, and that should rightfully be attributed to the brilliant, quick prose.
We start by following our protagonist Roo, a middle aged English teacher, hesitantly cohabiting with her ageing and partially senile mother when she meets Kumar- a much younger artist who allures her into a whirlwind affair. Roo is an interesting medium through which to follow the story, she truly exemplifies the word introvert. She keeps to herself most days, identified only as the one seated in a corner at a party and the one who merely listens when others talk. She describes herself as “killingly dull”, while Kumar pegs her for the “the self proclaimed good girl” mere pages into our traipse through Roo’s life.
The truth of it all is that she is neither. Roo’s career and daily struggle to gain the interest of her students is mesmerising. They are amongst the many recipients of Roo’s carefully built up walls, integral to how she approaches the world. Roo leads you on an almost sterile view of her job- the drone of teaching and dealing with her colleagues in the staff room. The children pass notes, lewdly alluding to her reputation as a sexless spinster, when ironically they could not even begin to fathom the depth of the well of sadness, resentment, anger and grief that she manages to hide under a humdrum little facade. The reader is clued in to this through the introduction of Roo’s childhood friend Eedee, with whom she shares a peculiar bond. Their relationship appears externally perfect, exactly as Roo would like to keep it I’m sure, but there is a dampness that seeps in just beneath the surface. This parallels the mysterious death of her father, and the odd fixations of her invalid mother, all cluing us in that something is not quite right in Roo’s externally mundane life. As her affair with Kumar progresses, we are led into the darkest corners of Roo’s memories starting with the mystery of why she seems to resent her father.
Secrets are the core of this work, and any readers who looks for a slow burn with their suspense will enjoy the intricate narrative that she spins, but the innocuous Roo is unique as far protagonists go. I finished it in the course of one afternoon, quite literally unable to put it down almost solely because of Roo’s wry and cheeky sense of humour. Her interiority and the first person narrative is integral for my love of Roo. While the suspense is dark and adult, her self deprecating and whimsical sense of humour is peppered throughout the narrative providing unexpected laughs. Roo is almost painfully self-aware of others’ perceptions and internalises it into charming one-liners and scathing interior monologues that make her a genuinely loveable and enjoyable protagonist. She is real enough to anchor the entire book, quipping away to Kumar over text messages or secretly judging her fellow teachers.
While some stories could lose you by the time a reveal or conclusion comes lurching carelessly around the corner, Roo’s entirely authentic personality makes the end almost too hard to read. It painfully and mercilessly reveals secrets that have been buried for so long that they were practically plastered over and replaced with ornamental fountains. The pace picks up immensely in the last third of the book, and left me at the edge of my seat. It’s almost too late to notice the alarm bells ringing as Roo gradually reveals to us the secret that haunts her, tying in her parents and roping her inextricably with Eedee. Yet, you’re still left wondering… is it the whole truth? The book still has many surprises up its sleeve, wrapping up quickly and rather ambiguously.