Reviewed by Sonia Saikaley
Have you ever felt completely drawn to a story to the point that you imagine being there with the characters, especially the protagonist? Anita Kushwaha’s award-winning novel Side by Side is one such story that draws you from page to page with its lyrical, brave and heart-wrenching prose.
Side by Side isn’t always an easy read. It deals with a very difficult topic: suicide. The novel explores the intense relationship between siblings and the aching and longing for that brother or sister after they are gone. How does one go on after such a tragedy? Can you go on? There are times when you want to cry, want to walk away from Kavita’s escalating pain and anxiety but the excellence of the writing and the ability of Kushwaha to make you trust her is always there, guiding you and reassuring you that it is all right to let yourself feel this pain and grief. It won’t be easy because you’ll be changed. This is what a great novel does – it changes you even if only momentarily. It makes you feel the rawness of the characters’ pain and joy. In Side by Side, Kushwaha invites you to be a part of the family and feel the difficulties faced by the parents and even more so by the sister of the young man who ends his own life.
The story also tackles the immigrant experience and shows how some immigrants do not make a smooth transition in a new country. When Kavita’s mom says “I’ve wanted to leave this country almost as soon as I arrived. I have never felt at home here,” Kushwaha demonstrates how challenging it can be for some people living in a country that is not their birthplace. These words could also have been spoken from the grief the mother feels after losing her son. Pain can be fluid; it reminds you of other heartaches or disappointments. Throughout the novel, Kushwaha shows herself to be a writer with incredible storytelling gifts because she uses this fluidity to exhibit what it means to be human. Emotions collide with vivid and powerful imagery making you feel as though you are alongside the characters sipping ginger tea, savouring curry and samosas, strolling the foggy streets of London and hiking the autumnal trails of Gatineau Park.
Along with the beauty of the landscape and how the novel brilliantly depicts the food and rich culture of India, the sorrow in this book leaves you asking yourself: what would you do if a loved one ended his or her life? Kushwasha should be applauded for undertaking such a difficult and heartbreaking but important topic. There is a sad and moving scene where Kavita is with her parents and husband and they are discussing who to tell about her brother’s death. Kavita wants to tell people the truth that her brother committed suicide but the mother doesn’t want to. She wants to say that Sunil died in a car accident and Kavita says that they shouldn’t be ashamed and her mother replies “No one judges people who die of cancer.” Although society has become more open to discussing mental illness and health issues, there are still some cultures that find these topics taboo and Kushwaha illustrates this remarkably well in her book.
Kushwaha also shows the tendencies of excluding women in a patriarchal culture. In one scene, Kavita joins her husband’s male relatives in a room after the loss of Kavita’s husband’s grandmother. The men reluctantly offer her a whiskey and when a stranger enters and spots Kavita holding the drink, he glares at her with disgust and says, “That better not be for you.” She sits in silence, not being introduced to the stranger and she wonders if she’s being punished for breaking the customary order of men being in one room and women in another and after a few minutes, she leaves the room quietly. Kushwaha shows how despite the grief Kavita is experiencing, she is not welcomed in the presence of these men.
Kavita struggles with her grief and her split between cultures throughout the novel, but there is hope too. With humanity and empathy, Kushwaha dares us to reach into the deepest recesses of the mind as we stand ‘side by side’ with Kavita who tries to find the strength and peace to go on after tragedy.
Side by Side is published by Inanna Publications.
Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a large Lebanese family. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. She has two poetry collections Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter and A Samurai’s Pink House. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. A graduate of the University of Ottawa and the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa. Her novel The Allspice Bath was recently published by Inanna Publications.