"Dancing to the Flute" (Atria), by Manisha Jolie Amin
A little boy appears in an Indian village, not remembering his name nor where he was from. But he is charming, clever and musically gifted, and manages to make his way, thanks largely to the kindness of strangers.
His talent for playing the flute brings him to the notice of a wandering healer whose brother is a famed musician. That brother decides to take on the boy, known as Kalu, as a student. And over the years, both learn much.
"Dancing to the Flute" is Manisha Jolie Amin's first novel and her American literary debut. It is an airy, free-floating tale, evoking the notes of a flute on the wind.
The author writes that each part of the novel is supposed to mimic an Indian melodic form known as the raag, starting slowly and gaining pace as it progresses. But the book doesn't quite achieve lyrical status, although it tries very hard.
The boy at the center of the story is actually its least interesting character. It's the others around him — the meek servant girl, the downtrodden buffalo handler and others — who give the book what little heft it has. There are two particularly powerful moments in the book, and Kalu is something of a side-note in each of them.
One of the downfalls of trying to make a book "lyrical" or "atmospheric" is that it's easy to simultaneously make it too vague. It's a bit unfair to the reader, who can struggle to try to understand what just happened in a paragraph or a chapter.
Sacrificing substance for style doesn't always work. "Dancing to the Flute" falls short of achieving exceptional style, and it definitely could have used more substance.