A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

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A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: An accomplished story of lonely immigrants set in both 1900's India and 1990's England.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Constable
ISBN: 978-1849011013

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Ritwik Ghosh grows up in India in the 1970's, one of two children of an abusive mother. In the 1990's, finally escaping the country after her death, he comes to England to study at Oxford, then moves to London. There, he looks after 86 year old Anne Cameron in exchange for free accommodation, while looking for work, and for sexual encounters with other men. He also writes a novel - the extended story of Miss Gilby, a character in Rabindranath Tagore's novel Ghare Baire. Miss Gilby becomes English teacher to Bimala, the wife of a minor official in 1900's Bengal just before the Partition of the province.

A Life Apart flips backwards and forwards between the two stories, Nitwik's own and the novel he's writing, and while they're both certainly interesting, my only complaint is that the tale of Miss Gilby was so compelling I wished more time had been spent on it. Her narrative takes up perhaps a third of the book's length, and is never less than enthralling, with the customs and rules of colonial India being described really well. Similarly, the main three characters, of Miss Gilby, her student Bimala, and Bimala's husband Mr Roy Chowdhury are vividly brought to life, and I'd happily have read a full length novel centred on the trio.

That's not to put down the main part of the book, Ritwik's story, which is also very well written. It starts a bit slowly and I wasn't quite as impressed by the descriptions of late 20th century England as I was by those of early 20th century India, but I was quickly drawn into this storyline as well, as Ritwik outstays his visa and falls into the murky worlds of sex for cash and the black economy, while his hostess Anne Cameron, even at the age of 86, remains far more aware of the world around her than he first gives her credit for. There's even a touch of magical realism – Miss Cameron is a birdwatcher, and foreign creatures such as quetzals and kookaburras appear briefly in the trees outside her home. His story also involves flashbacks to his childhood suffering in 1970's Calcutta, especially when he finds out that a fellow student is a volunteer for the NSPCC.

As the two stories progress, the outsider statuses of Ritwik and Miss Gilby mirror each other, as each is left unable to keep up with the events which surround them, and both storylines pick up pace, Ritwik's as his hobby of cottaging leads him to prostitution, and Miss Gilby's as the people around her become involved in the swadeshi movement of boycotting British products. The twin endings are abrupt but both work really well. All in all, the book is an assured debut from a new writer I'm really interested in reading more of.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For more on India, there are lots of choices, but I'll stick to two recommendations for the moment - Arundhati Roy's collection of essays, Listening to Grasshoppers, and Aravind Ariga's Booker prize winning The White Tiger.

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Buy A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee at Amazon.com.


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