Satire is hard to pull off. Especially when that satire involves cancer, acts of terror, and religion. I’m not convinced that Original Prin pulls it off, though there are some interesting turns along the way.
The novel starts strong on New Year’s Day. Prin and his wife, Molly, have taken their four daughters to the zoo. This is an annual tradition where they visit the lemurs and toast to the new year. This time though, Prin is trying to figure out how to reveal to his children that he has prostate cancer and will soon be having surgery. Things go further sideways when the family is trapped in the lemur house during a power out. The whole scene gives us a good look at who Prin is and how he handles difficulties while providing some funny moments as Prin and his family interact with another family also trapped.
While Prin is still recovering from surgery, he learns that the university where he is a professor (his area of expertise is metaphorical sea life in Canadian fiction) is facing imminent shutdown. An expert has been brought in to explore options to keep the university open. That expert happens to be Prin’s ex-girlfriend, Wende. From here, Prin’s life (and the novel) spirals until he ends up in a fictional Middle Eastern country, with Wende, ostensibly on a mission to save the university but also because he believes God told him to go. From the beginning of the book we are told that Prin ends up as a terrorist and while this is kind of true, it’s also kind of not.
I found Prin to be a pretty unsympathetic character. His wife is basically a saint, though rather one dimensional. Prin’s parents are funny but mostly caricatures and his inability or unwillingness to set any limits with them is infuriating to read. His mother becomes obsessed with checking his pants after his prostate surgery. His father becomes obsessed with the fact that his family line will end now that Prin is likely impotent. Never mind the fact that Prin has four daughters, he lets his father openly ignore his girls and plan a trip for them to return to Sri Lanka and find a woman to bear a child. Whether this woman is for the father or for Prin is a little unclear. Like I said, Molly is basically a saint.
Boyagoda tries to cover a lot here. There is Prin’s job as an academic (largely played for laughs), his faith as a Catholic, and his questions about what might have been in his personal life and marriage. The job stuff is pretty funny, especially if you have spent time around academics. The faith stuff I found less funny. I’m trying to parse whether this is because, as a Christian, I’m more sensitive and I honestly don’t think it is. I think there is a lot of room for satire and poking fun within the church but I found that Prin’s personal faith is unclear. We don’t witness him having much of a spiritual life before he receives this divine instruction. (Which, to be clear, I don’t believe precludes someone from hearing the voice of God, but does make it harder to understand in the context of a novel.)
As for Prin’s marriage…In some ways, Boyagoda does a good job of showing a relationship between two people who have been together for a long time. It’s solid in a way that doesn’t need to be showy. Prin and Molly have built a life together and much of it feels real. On the other hand, Prin spends a lot of time thinking about his ex-girlfriend, even before she appears on the scene. This doesn’t seem healthy after over a decade has passed, nor does it make him particularly sympathetic. His children don’t really feel like characters so much as props.
Finally, the Prin as Terrorist plot feels tacked on and largely unexplored. It’s (kind of) played for laughs and I struggled with that because I don’t think shootings in malls or airports or anywhere is funny and I think it would be really difficult to convince me that it was.
Randy Boyagoda will be one of the featured authors at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts this summer and I read Original Prin as part of my Writers Fest 2019 challenge.)