Book Review/Rant: The Painted Ocean (2016) by Gabriel Packard

Without reading it, The Painted Ocean looks like a pretty solid novel. The cover suggests something very sophisticated and literary, and the review quotes on it are pretty positive: ‘Hauntingly compelling’, ‘a thrilling and literate debut’, ‘a fearless tour de force’… How can you argue with that?

But sadly, the novel falls incredibly short of its cover – and its interesting blurb – and is, I can safely say, one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. It’s a bold claim, but I’m really not exaggerating; The Painted Ocean is mind-bogglingly awful. It’s ‘oh my God, how did this ever get published’ awful. It’s ‘I’m really concerned about the guys at Little, Brown’ awful. So this review is going to be really long, and, in actuality, more of a rant than a review – just to purge this book from my mind, and to use it as an example of how not to write a novel. This will involve spoiling most of its plot, but that should be fine, because none of you should read it.

So I’m going to start with the novel’s few positives before I get into the bad. For the first ten pages or so, The Painted Ocean is pretty solid – solid enough to make me think that I made the right decision in choosing to read it. It sets up an interesting premise, and begins to offer some insight into Indian culture (and what it’s like for a single Asian mother to raise a child in England). It makes me think of Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece a little bit (a really fantastic book, which you should read), with it examining racism from a child’s perspective. There are also some sections of the novel that feel kind of well plotted, and Packard manages to pull together some fairly tense sequences. Despite the novel’s many negative aspects, there were a few moments I did enjoy outside of the novel’s very beginning.

But that’s all I can really say in terms of positives. Now it’s time to go on to the negatives, and where to start? Let’s go with the plot.

The first quarter of the novel focuses on the heroine, Shruti, and the difficulties she faces in remaining with her mother after her father leaves them both. Child services want to take her away because her mother has no income, her great uncle wants her mother to move back to India to remarry (without Shruti) and the teachers at school think the abuse Shruti is receiving from her fellow students is coming from home. This first section of the novel is its best part, and it managed to hold my attention fairly well.

The main problem with this first section is that Packard drags it out for so long, before abruptly changing the novel’s focus. A girl of Indian descent being taken away from her mother and placed in foster care? That could make for a pretty interesting story, but Packard tells it in the worst way possible.

None of the characters in this section feel realistic in the slightest, and almost everyone other than Shruti exists simply to cause her suffering. Shruti’s mother, we are told, cares about her daughter deeply, but we see absolutely no evidence of this, and time after time (after time after time – because Packard really does drag this section out) she pushes her daughter away and refuses to rescue her from foster care for paper-thin reasons. Shruti’s great uncle is almost a cartoon villain – like all of the men in the novel – and exists just to abuse Shruti and make sure her life is living hell. The various characters from social services and Shruti’s school (if they can be called characters) are incredibly stupid and unable to listen to Shruti’s pleas for help. At each turn, when they are given a decision to make, they choose the one that will affect Shruti the worst, even if it makes no logical sense. Shruti explains that she’s being bullied at school? Of course social services would come to the conclusion that she’s being abused by her uncle without even investigating the kids in Shruti’s class at all.

Meena is the only character that doesn’t stand in Shruti’s way (and is the closest thing to a friend she has), but she’s equally insufferable. She’s a weed-smoking twelve-year-old (okay?) who casually commits arson and wavers between caring strongly about her friend’s situation and not caring at all. There’s also an odd scene where Meena stands up to Shruti’s mother and tells her how horrible she’s been to her daughter. It’s a moment that could have been powerful, but is weighed down by clunky and unrealistic dialogue.

And then there’s Shruti herself… Oh my… Shruti can hardly even be described as a character. Packard shows no interest in developing her at all, and she remains the same passive punching-bag throughout the whole novel. The Painted Ocean, in short, is nothing more than a summary of horrible events that occur to Shruti without any reason and without her seeming to care. Shruti gets taken away from her mother, she gets beaten up and verbally abused at school, she gets ignored by her friend, an elderly Filipino man tries to sexually assault her, she goes blind after being stung in the face by a jellyfish (like I said, the novel goes off track), she becomes a sex slave on a desert island… It just goes on and on with no relief. Packard puts her through so much ordeal and for no reason at all.

Another issue with the novel’s protagonist is that she’s mind-bogglingly stupid. Packard tries to stress that she’s clever early in the novel – getting strong a-level results – but offers no other evidence of this. I’ll give you an example of her stupidity: Shruti tries to book a working holiday in New Zealand for herself and Meena, and goes out of her way at the airport to make sure her plane tickets aren’t refundable – just so she won’t miss her flight:

‘And I tell the woman I want two plane tickets to New Zealand, but only if they’re completely non-refundable and won’t let me change the dates, and if I miss the flight I’ll lose all my money.’

It’s ridiculous. And the only reason Packard does this is to create some tension later on when it becomes almost impossible for Shruti to catch her flight on time. Not only is every character out to make the protagonist’s life a living hell, but she is herself too.

Though the worst part about Shruti is her voice. Packard’s style of writing is absolutely painful; he tries to capture the voice of an eleven-year-old, and has very little success (again, read My Sister Lives On the Mantelpiece for a good example of how to write a novel from a young person’s perspective). There are a few ways that he tries to do this. The first is by beginning the majority of the novel’s sentences with the word ‘and’. Now, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with ‘and’, I do it all the time, but the unwavering frequency with which Packard does it causes the novel to read like one big list. Imagine if everyone wrote like this:

“And then I got out of bed. And then I had breakfast. And then I went to the park. And then I got kidnapped by ninjas and I had to fight them all off and it was really difficult and I eventually got away.”

That’s how Packard writes (obviously the plot is a little more complicated though). He’s just listing event after event, and with no sentence variety it feels like a shopping list of plot details. It’s incredibly dull.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Shruti’s voice. The novel is written in the present tense, which is fine, but Packard does not use the typical speech word, ‘says’ (for example: “‘I fought ninjas today,’ says Bill”), using ‘she goes’ and ‘she went’ instead (for example: “‘I beat up all of the ninjas’, goes Bill”). It makes me cringe – especially because Packard’s use of it seems to be the one consistent thing in the entire novel. Shruti also says ‘cos’ and ‘mate’ a lot, which, while annoying, isn’t too bad. It’s not like a young person wouldn’t use those words. But when Packard starts dealing with serious issues – such as rape, and death through childbirth – later in the novel, it does cause some tonal whiplash (along with ‘she goes’ and ‘she went’). The casual child-like tone does not work at all in the later parts of the novel (especially because, after the first quarter, Shruti is nineteen rather than twelve), and causes the protagonist, and other characters for that matter, to seem detached from the things happening to them and happening around them. For example, when Meena reveals to Shruti that she’s giving birth:

“‘All right, mate,’ she’s like. ‘I’m having a baby.’”

And then a few moments later when she reveals to Shruti that she’s going to die in childbirth:

“‘I’m dying, mate.’”

And finally, Shruti’s reaction to this revelation:

“‘All right, then.’”

There are worse incidents than this, but I’d rather not trawl through the novel for more quotes.

As I noted before, the plot changes pretty drastically after the first quarter or so. Packard seems to lose interest in the story of Shruti losing her mother – it’s referred to a couple times later in the novel, but with little depth – and takes us forward several years in time. Along with Shruti’s mother, he also abandons The Painted Ocean’s interest in the whole ‘what’s it like to grow up in England with an Indian heritage?’ focus. Quickly the novel turns into a shallow thriller (not that it wasn’t shallow to begin with).

Meena tricks Shruti into coming to India with her, suggesting that she’s going to reunite her with her mother. Instead she leads her to a desert island owned by her boyfriend Steve – who inherits villain duties from Shruti’s great uncle. It’s a particularly gruelling journey to the island, and while Packard gives us some brief glimpses of Indian culture during it, the main focus of it is Shruti’s sadistic torture. One sequence in particular, when Shruti is just arriving on the island, may be the single worst part of the novel.

After Steve falls out with the people transporting Shruti and Meena to his island (killing them), Shruti falls into the sea and has to make her way to Steve’s camp herself. It’s a long sequence (maybe fifty pages) and it’s painful to read. The author’s torture of Shruti is incredibly sadistic. First her feet are swollen from trying to swim in the freezing sea, and then she is stung in the eyes by a jellyfish. The author describes the latter incident through Shruti’s voice so perfectly that it can almost be seen as poetic:

“[M]y eyes started screaming in pain. Cos I must have flicked the jellyfish stingers right into them.”

From there, it only gets worse. After spending the night sleeping on a rock out at sea, Shruti finally makes her way to the island, wandering around blind (from the jellyfish sting) and frequently falling over and cutting herself. At one point she fears that a wound on her knee might be infected, so Packard devotes a paragraph to her describing herself clawing off her scab and clawing out the dirt underneath it. She wanders around for a couple more days without food and water (accidently eating what is suggested to be bird faeces) before being abruptly rescued by Steve.

The single worst part about this sequence is that it serves no purpose. The events have no lasting effect on Shruti (even her blindness heals later without explanation) and it does not develop her character in the slightest. (Not that she is ever developed at any point in the novel.) It doesn’t help her see things from a different perspective, it doesn’t make her stronger and the events are hardly referred to again. Packard indulges in long descriptions of her suffering for no reason.

And the novel just gets worse from here. It is revealed that Steve is trying to create his own society on the island with Meena and Shruti, and has developed his own traditions that they must both follow. One of these is that both women must have sex with him each night before they go to sleep (leading to some very indulgent rape sequences). There are also a bunch of other weird traditions that Steve presents, but most of them are only mentioned once. All three of them must tell a story after dinner each night, no one is allowed to swear except Steve and the two women are not allowed to speak like ‘commoners’ (though this has no effect on the amount of times Shruti says ‘cos’).

Shruti soon discovers that she will never be allowed to leave the island (“I can’t believe they’ve kidnapped me onto a desert island for the rest of my life”), she becomes keen to escape. It’s also revealed (very abruptly) that Meena is pregnant, which seems to happen for no other reason than for Packard to present us with another awful sequence. Meena dies in childbirth (the child dies too), and Steve and Shruti are forced to cremate her body. This leads to a description of the protagonist watching her friend’s body burn up with a dead baby half-sticking out of her. And just to make matters worse, Packard throws in a couple of sentences about the smell of Meena burning making Shruti crave pork.

Steve, it must be stated, is nothing more than a cartoon villain. He’s evil, he wants to make Shruti suffer and Packard fails to develop him any further than that. He seems to be so self-aware of this that, at one point, when he gets the upper-hand on Shruti he states, “That, my friend, is what they call a plot twist.” Towards the end of the story, Packard offers some hints that he might develop Steve into something a bit more – he’s shown to be distraught over Meena’s death – but ultimately this doesn’t lead anywhere.

Shruti finally escapes from the island through a chain of events I won’t go into too much. She steals some gold from Steve (who has two million dollars’ worth buried behind his hut) and uses it to travel back home to England. From here, the novel gets even more bizarre; we get a long description of Shruti opening a business to launder the money she stole from Steve (a jewellery shop named ‘Island’ – yes, ‘Island’), we see her try to reconnect with her mother (but it’s touched on so briefly that there’s no depth to it) and also witness her going to a creative writing workshop to pass off her story as a piece of fiction she wrote.

This last section in particular is incredibly odd, and revealing about the person who wrote The Painted Ocean. In fact, it reveals Packard’s own insecurities about the novel and its poor quality. The people in the creative writing workshop suggest that Shruti (or whatever Shruti names herself in the fictionalisation of her story) isn’t an interesting or compelling character. This is a point that I agree with, and it’s odd that Packard would draw attention to how poorly written his heroine is. Maybe he’s trying to be cool and meta, suggesting that the terribleness of his novel was intentional? I really don’t know.

In the novel’s workshop sequence, the workshop teacher also highlights that The Painted Ocean, in part, is an allegory for colonialism (the white man Steve enslaving two women of Indian origin in their own home country). At first it seems like Packard is simply drawing attention to how clever his novel is, just in case the reader has missed it, but then he undercuts this with Shruti’s reaction to the teacher’s reading of the story.

She doesn’t particularly like the colonial reading, and states the following: “And all I really want is for people to read my story, and to see what these characters did and maybe get involved in the plot, and then see how evil Steve was and how much they hate him, and how sorry they feel for ‘the Shruti character’.” (Side note: count the amount of ‘and’s in that sentence). She also states that the story basically boils down to “I was good, and Steve was bad, and Meena was bad”. I don’t quite understand what Packard is trying to achieve in this part… Is he trying to tell us that we should ignore the novel’s allegorical aspect (perhaps its only positive aspect) and instead just enjoy the story? It’s a really strange note for him to end the novel on.

Packard also uses the workshop sequence as a mouthpiece for one final point. In another class, Shruti tricks the teacher into thinking that the story was written by one of her white friends rather than herself, causing the teacher to question what right a white person has to ‘occupy a character of South Asian descent’. Once again, Packard is trying to pre-empt a possible criticism towards The Painted Ocean: what right does he have, a white man, to write about a woman of South Asian descent like Shruti? In my opinion, there is no problem with Packard writing a novel from the position of a woman of South Asian descent (though I suppose I am a white man as well). As long as he does it well, and he captures the culture well, then where’s the problem?

But unfortunately, he doesn’t capture anything well – as this rant shows. Packard isn’t interested in writing a novel about Indian culture, and is instead much more interested in writing an awful thriller about a woman who is kidnapped onto an island and turned into a slave. He is interested in writing a novel where none of the characters have any depth, where the plot seems to change focus every ten minutes and where he indulges in grotesque descriptions of his heroine being physically and mentally tortured.

The Painted Ocean is a stunningly bad novel, as this long rant hopefully demonstrates. What Packard has put together here is a fantastic guide of what not to do when writing a novel. If this book can get published, then any book can. Aspiring writers, I urge you to view The Painted Ocean as a sign of hope (as well as a sign of despair).

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