The Village by Nikita Lalwani is about a three person BBC crew sent to Ashwer, India to film a television documentary on a unique prison structure. Ashwer is a community, a city, in fact, of convicts, all convicted of committing murder. These convicts are allowed to work and live with their families so they continue to contribute to society and to the care of their spouses and/or children. Ray, the main protagonist, is a mid-twenties female, who happens to be British and of Indian descent, speaks Hindi, and struggles with her identity while in India. Serena, is the older, more experienced woman in her mid-thirties, and is there to offer guidance and assistance to Ray, as the documentary was her idea. Unfortunately, these two women, in rather cliched form, regularly battle with female jealousy with each other about everything from the clothes they wear to Nathan, the third member of their group. Nathan, is in his mid-forties, an ex-con, which is supposed to be an added benefit because he will then be able to identify more with the convicts in Ashwer, and a complete male chauvinist, obsessed with sex, drugs, and himself - basically, a self-identified narcissist.
In many ways, The Village is beautifully written. Lalwani's vivid imagery really illustrates what Ashwer looks like: the short walls, huts without real windows, the woman who wears purple and mans (wo-mans?) the water pump. I could, with ease, see the scenery in which the characters are surrounded. However, even though the book is enmeshed with stunning descriptions, The Village also lacks a great deal in other ways.
I wish Lalwani would have spent more time on the inmates' stories. Their narratives were some of the most interesting aspects of the novel, definitely a strong point. Knowing all the inmates are in Ashwer for the crime of murder is one thing, but the stories behind each can go from one end of the spectrum to the other. An inmate convicted of murder in self defense alongside another who killed out of jealousy is intriguing, especially since they are all free to leave during the day, as long as they return at night. It makes you wonder if it could possibly work in a place like the United States. I doubt it, but that's another discussion. Unfortunately, we only are given the opportunity to learn about a few of the inmates, and why they are there.
The problem I had, the thing that stopped me from really liking this book, were the character descriptions. It seems like the author was so concerned with getting the descriptions of the setting right that she failed to draw interest to any of the main characters. The only person we really get a sense of is Nandini, a prisoner and liaison to Ray.
Finally, the novel fails to have a very exciting conflict that keeps the reader interested. Instead, Lalwani presents us with an internal conflict. Ray, cannot find her middle ground between being British, and Indian, while communicating and living around the Ashwer citizens. She regularly contradicts what she says about herself and her dedication to being Indian. For instance, she claims to be a "veg," which not only means that she is a vegetarian, but also takes on the association of other traditional Hindu cultural norms, like being a non-drinker and having certain expectations for sexual behavior. However, Ray sneaks chicken into her diet, drinks and partakes in other drug use, and, although still a virgin, behaves in questionable sexual behavior. As a reader, I should have felt more invested in Ray's experience and internal conflict, but I kept wondering when the big conflict was going to take place, and it never happens.