Mina Pereira wants a normal life, but has a lot to struggle against to attain it. Her parents thrust the encyclopedia and a violin into her hands at the tender age of two. They are never satisfied with her. How can they be when antennae sprout from her head and her eight-year-old sister, Deepa, is breezing through War and Peace?
Mina cultivates a dark outlook that is only deepened by experience. Deepa tortures her, while the youngest, Shanti, is unreachable, permanently glued to the tube. Mina is a social outcast. The love she lacks the most, however, is her mother's. Something mysterious steals Mum's vitality away after an operation, and she subsequently withdraws from the family, screeching her death wishes when Dad tries to console her. Mina, from an early age, also wants to die.
Hope and happiness does come to Mina, although she never fully trusts it. Each chapter relates a main episode, rife with quirky characters and incredible human errors. She analyzes all this far better than she gives herself credit for, tying strange happenings into the bigger picture. She is literally on the surface; her feelers droop when she despairs, swell when fright strikes her. And on slight occasion, they dance in contentedness.
Keen analysis gives Mina wisdom nearly at infancy. But part of her anguish emanates from the burden of this wisdom. Her and Deepa's precocity makes for a fierce world. Children in Mina's kindergarten class form cliques and furtively begin to cut at Mina with their rejection of her. Besides, Mina and her antennae can barely contain her sorrows and angers that arise from this wisdom. Precocity in the case of the Pereira's is almost deadly.
Don't let the large typeface and convenient bookmark ribbon fool you. Homework wants its readers enlightened as well, and they have to keep prodigious pace to do so. Mina describes a July winter day early on, but she does live in Australia. I was baffled when her mother first cooked samosas, biryani and bajhi. You'll learn a lot of Indian culinary and religious terms. Hindu and Catholic allusions lightly color Mina's stories. Da Costa speaks from her childhood in Sydney, making the detail accurate and direct. It's tough to soak in, but it's worth the effort.
While culture and profound concepts are laid out neatly, the author's monstrous vocabulary will humble the most intelligent teen reader. This makes for a patchy read; a passage will fly until weltanschauung or pusillanimity comes along. It's excellent SAT practice. But should fiction build vocabulary with such intensity?
Da Costa, like her characters, is vastly intelligent, and it glares in her writing. She is not intentionally patronizing, but by throwing so much knowledge at the reader, she distracts from the deeper issues of the book. And big words don't mean exquisite writing. Her tangents go out way too far, leaving the reader bewildered in the middle of a story, or even a sentence. Da Costa hits on true meaning in her book, and with the last pages pulls the book together and stretches the reader's emotional wisdom. The sloppiness of the totality, however, detracts from Mina's revelations, both mid-book and climactic.
Sloppier still is the copy editing. A first novel should be fastidious, and Homework is far from it. Periods and commas are omitted. I understand that Australian spelling differs from that of America, but mollusc isn't correct in any part of the world. The bad editing virus plagues many new releases, but Homework has the severest case I have ever seen. The infection will undermine da Costa's chances at truly great fiction, an injustice to someone of her talent.
Da Costa's résumé is good so far. At 23 she has earned awards for her acting and short story writing. She is a Fulbright scholar, awarded for outstanding academic work with United States students. Her first novel, still raw, does not speak quite as nicely as did her previous recognition. If she wants to be a successful writer, she has to write and revise as meticulously as her credentials and her brilliance - her precocity - imply possible.
By Suneeta Peres da Costa
Bloomsbury Publications, New York
$24, 259 pages