Book Review: Coinman

An Untold Conspiracy

By Pawan Mishra

This is the first truly literary work I’ve read in a while. I like it.

The story is set in a small office in India and focuses on aCoinman_BookCover discriminated odd-ball called Coinman – so called because he habitually plays with coinage in his pocket, the sound of which drives his colleagues to distraction. What follows is a collaborative vendetta against the ‘tyranny’ of the coins and their unrelenting noise, and all the associated fallout with such a revolution. It is a comic and well written spin on something that will not be entirely alien to anyone familiar with office life. A very clever idea.

And that is the beauty of this book – it is an insightful, funny, and beautifully crafted mockery of the ridiculous and bureaucratic social oddness that is working in an office. I challenge anyone who has experienced the stifling politics of an office to declare that this doesn’t ring true. It certainly did for me.

My particular favourite quote is thus: “a meeting is a collective tacit confession of participants’ unwillingness to work.” As someone with first-hand evidence of witnessing the confusing paradox of meeting saturation vs. productivity, I can vouch for this excellent observation. It made me laugh out loud, and indeed, made me sigh with relief that someone else recognises the absurdity. Quite excellent.

Now, this is not my usual read – not a fantasy concept in sight. But I am not averse to a wide breadth of fiction, and this resonated with me; it made me chuckle retrospectively with its witty observations.

The closest I have read recently is JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. That was a book about small town politics and the big impact that they can have on individual lives, bringing those problems right into the heart of the reader over the course of the novel. Coinman is slightly different, attacking a similar idea but with a comic and well-constructed edge and a very well formed literary style. I must admit that I don’t think I resonated with the characters as much as I may have done with a less artistic piece of prose – I wasn’t totally emotionally committed to them – but I did like Coinman and wanted him to come out good in the end.

And ultimately we do have a happy ending, though interestingly not too happy. There is one loose end that may be considered unfair, and the author points this out as one of life’s little games – life isn’t always fair, is it? And that’s a really nice touch.

Now, there are of course some aspects that are not right up my street. As a literary novel, it immediately plays into a difficult corner with me – I prefer to become absorbed in the language rather than to savour it. But this is very well written, and despite being cleverly crafted, it still serves to create a very good story-telling backdrop. It is not literature for literature’s sake, and there are actually some really nice flourishes which do enhance the reading. The “coin’s tyranny” is a particular favourite, but it is by no means an isolated gem; there are numerous examples of an excellent literary head in the prose. So all in all, this worked very well.

One thing that does hang about in my head is this – is the language here appropriate for the people we are following? Everyone in the book is extremely well spoken, which fits perfectly the high class literary prose, but it did cause me to pause and question whether it worked on a purely social level. If it was a UK admin office, I would suggest no, the tone of the dialogue is too refined, but this is not set in the UK – this is set in India where this may be appropriate. I will leave it to the author as subject expert. And besides, it did work well as a novel, so this is really a small point.

Another aspect that goes against my preferences was the “telling”. Show don’t tell is one of those regularly quoted pieces of advice, and the author does show here. But we get whole chapters dedicated to showing backstory which feels a bit like telling – this is not something that tickles me usually. That being said, because they are segregated by chapter breaks, and also because they are nicely told stories in their own right, the backstory is actually well presented; in this book, it works. Though I must say that even despite this enrichment, I personally didn’t fall in love with the characters and I may therefore question some the purpose of the backstory other than from an artistic perspective. But this does work in this novel – so again, a small point.

Anyway – enough from me. This is an excellent literary observation of the comic circumstance of modern office life, and I highly recommend reading this. I can certainly see where the awards come from, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to the author.

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