A History of Insects : Review

A Beautiful cover with the handmade
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Book        :    A History of Insects
Author    :    Yvonne Roberts
Genre`     :    Coming of age 
Year        :    2000
Cover      :   beautifully symbolic, Loved it.
Ratings   :    3/5

Nine-years-old, Ella is caught amid the pretentious world of grown ups and found it to be sham and full of hypocrisy. For her, the adult behaviour is confusing and contradictory.

She is lonely as her relation with her mother is far from good.The only sunny rays are 'Uncle Ash', the Pakistani Brigadier Ashraf Khan, the American lady Betty and the very ill, soon-to-die- Tommy.
 Later, in the story, when Ella is send to a hostel she met Zuhra, Miss Patterson and Dr Mac.
After gaining new insights in the matters of religion and sin, Ella loses her voice and was brought back by Betty to Peshawar for the summer holidays.  How she got her voice back  in more than one ways marks the end of the story.

My View-

Set in early 1956 when the last of the British Empire was struggling to hold its place in Peshawar, Pakistan, Ella, the 9 year old daughter of Bill Jackson, the 'Morse Man' of British Deputy Commander, becomes witness to the troublesome times of social,political and personal unrest. As her father is the 'code-man' who translates the delicate Morse coded information send from Abbotabad to the British High Commission's office in Peshawar and hence, lives in the compound of the  gated British community of 4-5 families and a handful of native servants, she is confined to its walls . She soon finds a secret garden to there soothe her senses thus, keeping her fertile imagination running wild around it.
She becomes aware of the ongoing sexual conflicts and the social unrest in a place brimming with racism, class hierarchy,treachery, snobbery, secrets and lies. 
At such turbulent phase, her diary is her only solace, a requisite to live, analyse and understand the strangeness of life around her.

Confused and somewhat embarrassed by the quirkiness of adult behaviour, their codes of conduct and double standards, Ella promptly makes her journal a secret one and it becomes a secret book  labelled as 'The History of Insects' to avoid undue attention. She had learnt it the hard way that if you label your diary 'Private' and 'Keep Away' adults are bound to open and read it while pretending it to be something as boring as 'The History Of Insects' no adult will touch it even when it is in plain sight !
She pours her heart in to it to her heart's content about things which confuse, enrage and disturb her. Most of the entries were triggered by her mother Alice Jackson's strange  ways in dealing with her only daughter Ella and life in general. 

There is  something amiss here.

Am sorry to say this but though the writer writes with clarity,she lacks pathos and wit. 
Not a single witty character or lines to lighten the mood. 

The writer  is lucid, correct in language and interpretation and in creating situations but they all seem .... incomplete . After each situation, the reader is left with a sense of 'adhurapan' - incompleteness ... no single event reached its end ...  except that Shafi is executed (wry smile)
So many loose ends- 
What is the secret if any was their in Noel playing with toys?
What about the broken leg of Noel's toy horse?
What Dr Mac did rather not did ?
Why Alice changed suddenly.. in hardly an hour  ?
And lastly ........... the somewhat ambiguous end . 
I felt like leaving Ella in a lurch, with her decision of not growing up . Ever.

Is Excellent. 

The writer has etched fine characters out of facts and figments of imagination and observation. She has also managed to create that troubled sense of impending doom throughout the book .
But again, the characters - all of them , finely etched, carved , mouthing well-formed dialogues are devoid of LIFE.And it's this lack of life (which is there even in the lifeless) that mars the book .

ALICE'S character is a mother who lacks that source of feeling which a woman has as an integral part of her physiology . No doubt, her past experiences had shaped her the way she is but  she  could have made life a cheerful place for Ella and Bill both had she just tried !Too occupied in keeping up with the Jonses she missed out life's little pleasures and the knowledge of it made it hard for her to accept her faults thus making life miserable for her and those related to her.At the end of the story, Alice is changed without any apparent reason or explanation and without making her any better .

MARJORIE and SYLVIA are the other two female characters who show a passive interest in life expecting fun without work. 
While BETTY and BLOSSOM are the ones who chose to take the active part in life.With their own share of troubles and lows,they are involved in life and though they have acceptance regarding fate and their choices yet they keep working on it ... 

All the wives of the story are real fine characters including the blink and the miss performance of the poised, sheathed in a pale-linen dress,strikingly beautiful Mrs. Faryal Afridi Khan. 
Read it for her.

 Though mentioned earlier I am writing again to make my mind as well as your head clear. 
 The book is
- engaging and fresh as Pakistan as a background is new for me. 
- has good narration
- fine characterisation,
- correct, crisp language ,
- proportionate description 
the rich cultural back 
- engrossing wives and 
- enough secrets ... 
BUT it lacks
- that lyrical flow,which is there even in disasters.. 

- that beauty which shines even from sadness and
- that  music of melancholy . 
Over all, it lacks zest, spark, in one word  - Life. 

It has that intricate pattern of marriage and love... self-respect and loneliness, the sad, insecure, yearning for a better life n love wives, courage, and cowardice .... all embroidered on the already rich tapestry of British-Pakistani-Sikh-Muslim-Indian-Americans cultural presence with The Ruler and The ruled relation on the fringes.  
With such a rich premise and a protagonist with a fertile and curious mind, you simply mourn for the waste of the potential.

Bland .Engaging.
Despite myself I loved it !
If something can be good despite being bland then it's this book.
So, an engrossing read with that little something amiss which could have turned it into Beea...uuutiful ... Sigh!

My Goodread Review 

About The Author

 Yvonne Roberts is an award-winning journalist who has worked in TV and newspapers including The Sunday Times, the observer and the Guardian.She grew up in Pakistan in the 1950s and is an author of non-fiction and fiction books.

You can find her 
On Linkedin 
On GoodRaeds
On Twitter

And buy the book from 


  1. Very nice review Kokila :) I haven't ready many books in English, so as of now, I think this book is not for me. Will follow your reviews so that I can pick some books to read :)

    TC! Keep smiling :)

    1. Yes Sindhu if you like reading about tangled relations .. then you'll like it otherwise I'll not recommend :) Infact I am waiting for one of your beautiful pencil sketches to appear ...:) Bengaluru has a lot to offer to a creative and sensitive person like you :)

    2. Thank you Kokila :) A great artist (who weaves word arts) waits to see my work! It means a lot dear :) Just yesterday I started 'a quick sketch a day' again that I was not doing lately... Pune has given many thoughts and ideas, I think Bengaluru will help bringing them to life :) TC dear...

  2. This is really very very interesting. A book with a title like that would certainly catch my attention. Thanks for the honest review kokila :)..

    1. Yeah Vinay the Title is quirky given the story and the cover .. that's why it caught my eye in the first place :)
      And you will have a blast in decoding the tangled mass of people it offers :) :P
      Happy reading :)

  3. On first look I thought it's something on entomology :-P An honest review Kokila and you've made it really interesting. Lack of wit and pathos is a miss...big time :-( But as you've said, it's still an engrossing read so marking it as my 'to read' .... :-)

    1. He he...even Google thought the same unless i mentioned the author's name :P
      Yeah Mani.. I know you would have loved it beyond words if it was a bit witty OR written with more emotion.. may be I am getting gooey .. well .. but something was amiss . I hope that you will read it and point that out :) (because despite the lacking, it IS engrossing.)

  4. Seems it has enormous possibilities to apply my mind with lots of loose ends. I'm thankful to the author for not giving the reasons for change in Alice. Now I'm free to interpret it on my own ways without any interference from author's reasoning. I'm definitely gonna read it :)

    1. Hmmm .. ENORMOUS possibilities.. true enough . :)
      specially as the change was so abrupt ..
      and look at your words dear bhai.. "without any interference from the author" !WOW :P (leg-pulling :P)
      Ha Ha ... i'll eagerly wait for your reactions and analysis Ravish :) Thanks for stopping by :)

  5. The setting and the time are both of interest to me. I was born in 1948 so would have been an eight-year-old living on a farm in England at the time of this story. It would be interesting to contrast Ella's life with my own. Thank you for such an honest and thorough review Kokila, I will definitely pick this up if I should see it. Barbara.

    1. I will definitely wait for a word from you regarding it by any chance you'll read it .Its an engrossing book and a quick read.. though it lacked in that fluidity of emotion and narration which makes your heart heavy and eyes wet.. though it had all the ingredients to do so !
      I loved to read it as to me , it presented an entirely different picture of British wives of that era, wives whom I used to think as generally ... Lucky ! I doubted and wondered about 'what is there behind the veneer ' but never expected mental bondage .... :(
      wishes , Kokila

  6. Nice review. Pity the book fell a bit short for you...but it seemed like you ended up enjoying it anyways.

    1. Thanks a lot Kathy for stopping by.... you have summed it up nicely .. though a bit short I enjoyed reading it ... :) Thanks for being a reader Kathy :)

  7. The Title attracts , and the present scenario of the Peshawar is making the book a great edition.This is really very very interesting and thnx goes to you for your honest review.

    1. Though the book has nothing to do with the Peshawar of today but the angst of the people must have been same only the target at that time were British .... Thanks Yogi for stopping by :)


    1. Your words are such a welcome Uppal ji as it feels that not only a reader friend is pleased but a teacher has given me good marks ! I wait for your comments :)

  9. Still sounds like an interesting book!

  10. So well reviewed, so glad I looked back in to your posts and stumbled on this. :)

    1. Hey Indrani .. Its me who is late in replying .. Its touching that you are visiting backwards too ! Thanks friend :) :)


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